Back on track, hockey team ready for title run

David La

To prepare his hockey team on Sunday night for an otherwise meaningless exhibition against Russia’s Regional Select Team, Gophers coach Don Lucia posed a question.
“I asked the guys before the game, ‘We’ve got a lot of guys that have played international hockey during their career — who ever beat a Russian team?’ Not one guy could raise their hand.”
No. 8 Minnesota responded with a 5-4 win in a tightly-contested game.
Entering the December break with a 10-5-2 record — their best since 1995-96 — the Gophers now face inquiries about what they will do for an encore.
“We’re in pretty good position to make a run at a conference title and an NCAA tournament berth,” assistant captain Johnny Pohl said. “We’re finding out how to win games. We blew a couple games, but we’ve also won a couple one-goal games and that’s huge.”
Minnesota is tied with three teams for second in the WCHA with 16 standings points, but a Denver sweep this weekend would vault the fifth-placed Pioneers into sole position of second place.
“The league race is tight right now,” Lucia said. “Every game and every point will be critical in the second half of the year.”
Equally critical for the Gophers is recapturing the form which enabled them to sweep Wisconsin and St. Cloud State — teams they did not beat last season. The wins over the Badgers and Huskies catapulted Minnesota to the top spot in both major hockey polls earlier this season.
Despite a four-game slump in which Minnesota scored a paltry four goals — its lowest output since Harry Truman was in office — the Gophers are netting 4.29 tallies per night, compared to a 3.0 goals per game average this time last year.
Senior Erik Westrum leads the team with 25 points and is on pace for another 50-point season. Junior Jordan Leopold (20) and sophomore Jeff Taffe (18) are four and two points away, respectively, from matching last year’s point totals.
The vaunted freshmen class is also paying dividends, with Troy Riddle (11), Grant Potulny and Matt Koalska (10 each) helping to carry the offensive load.
An 0-for-19 streak took its toll on Minnesota’s outrageous power-play efficiency, reducing the number to 28.1 percent — still tops in the WCHA.
Still, Lucia is concerned about the consistency of his team’s resolve.
“We still have guys who have to learn to play hard and bring it every night,” Lucia said. “We have to get over that hurdle and get every guy working hard and being effective out there.”
After going into the December break 6-10-2 a year ago, the Gophers sprinted out to a 11-3 record. With a more talented team and a solid foothold in the WCHA race this season, Minnesota could make a run for its first conference title and NCAA tournament berth since 1996-97.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]