The state of hockey

by Lou Raguse

It took a season full of ups and downs, injuries and comebacks, but Minnesota’s men’s hockey team is finally back to the spot it was at this time during the last two seasons – heading into the NCAA Regionals as a No. 1 seed.

The Gophers (26-13-3) will face Notre Dame, participating in its first NCAA Tournament, at 11 a.m. in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Saturday.

The last time Minnesota and the Irish (20-14-4) met was Oct. 7, 2000, in the Gophers’ seniors’ first career game.

Matt Koalska, Troy Riddle and Grant Potulny all scored goals in that game, and, now as seniors, they look to lead the team in its quest for a third-straight national championship.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Potulny said. “The older guys are supposed to carry (the team) at the end of the season.”

The seniors have done their part so far. Riddle notched nine points against St. Cloud State in the WCHA first round series, and Potulny scored the game-winner in the WCHA Final Five Championship.

The offensive contribution will be particularly important against Notre Dame, which has held opponents to two goals or less 24 times this season.

“We know their defensive style,” Riddle said. “We’ve got to work their ‘D’ down low.”

Minnesota coach Don Lucia is a Notre Dame alumnus and played hockey there with current Irish coach Dave Poulin until 1981.

Although Lucia spent the week fielding questions about their ex-teammate relationship, he is focused on the task at hand.

“If we weren’t in it, I’d be rooting for them,” Lucia said. “But we’re in it. Business is business this week.”

If Minnesota wins Saturday, it will play the winner of the Minnesota-Duluth (26-12-4) and Michigan State (23-16-2) game slated for 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Gophers have played both teams this season. They beat the Spartans 5-1 in the College Hockey Showcase on Nov. 28 and defeated the Bulldogs 7-4 last Friday in the WCHA Final Five after dropping four regular-season games to them.

But Minnesota-Duluth heads to Grand Rapids as a banged-up unit.

Star forward and Hobey Baker finalist Junior Lessard hasn’t practiced this week after hurting his left knee in the WCHA Final Five third-place game against Alaska-Anchorage Saturday.

Lessard’s playing status for Saturday is still undetermined, coach Scott Sandelin said. But Sandelin said he is optimistic other injured players Tyler Brosz, Tim Stapleton and Tim Hambly will be good to go this weekend.

And after losing to Minnesota last Friday, Bulldogs players said they are looking forward to the prospect of a rematch.

“We’re still enthused about going to the tournament,” captain Beau Geisler said. “Hopefully we’ll meet again.”