Stingy Seawolves

by Tim Nichols

The Gophers men’s hockey team will be in a situation this weekend that it hasn’t experienced for awhile.
They’ll be the favorite.
After playing well against No. 1 North Dakota before succumbing to superior depth and goaltending, Minnesota (5-5-2 overall, 4-2-2 in the WCHA) will play a crucial series at Alaska-Anchorage (2-7-1, 1-4-1) this weekend.
And while it is still relatively early in the season, the Gophers are in dire need of a win streak, regardless of the opponent. Dave Spehar said no one on his team wants to admit it, but these two games are must-win situations for the Gophers.
Minnesota will have a difficult time scoring goals against the always-stingy Seawolves defense, however. Alaska-Anchorage led the league in fewest penalties against last year and currently leads that category this year, and with the Gophers’ reliance on the power play this year for their goal production, they will be hard pressed to score at even-strength.
“We haven’t scored many goals against them (in the past),” coach Doug Woog said. “They don’t have many penalties, and we don’t score many 5-on-5 goals. So we have some concerns but we need to go in there with the idea that we’re there to get points.”
The struggling Gophers will face a team that hung tight with a resurgent Wisconsin team in Madison. Alaska-Anchorage will also have one of its leaders back, senior and Anchorage native Eric Tuott.
But for the Seawolves to be successful, they will have to rely on their defensive scheme and goaltending.
“We’ve got to be ready and improved from last week,” Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous said. “And hope for the best results.”
The Seawolves aren’t a realistic contender for the WCHA title, but the Gophers contend they are. With Colorado College and North Dakota poised to make it a two-team race, Minnesota needs all the points it can get.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for us not to think that it’s a must for points,” Berg said. “We’ve had a pretty rough couple of weeks, and we don’t have any (WCHA) games until December. So we’ve got to go out and see where the sun shines.”
Alaska-Anchorage doesn’t boast the fastest or most skilled players in the league. The Seawolves compensate for a lack of talent and depth by playing a trapping defense that frustrates the opposition and capitalizes on turnovers in the neutral zone.
“It’s no secret that its hard to play there because they don’t open the game up,” Woog said. “They are very good defensively when you look at their scores. They give you very few chances; they don’t risk anything.
“They play it very tight to the vest. It’s like waiting for them to fumble the football. It’s like, `We’ll run the ball for three downs, punt it, see what you can do with it.'”
Regardless of its numbers so far this season, Alaska-Anchorage is a little more skilled than it’s been in the past — which still isn’t saying much.
The Seawolves’ freshman class has been instrumental toward the team’s success, accounting for 23 of its 58 points scored this season. First-year players Mike Scott and Steve Cygan currently lead Alaska-Anchorage with six and five points, respectively.
Although Alaska-Anchorage’s record doesn’t suggest improvement, Talafous said he’s pleased with its progress.
“We played Wisconsin to 2-1 and 2-2,” Talafous said. “I thought we played okay. (We played) 120 minutes and only one goal separated us. Wisconsin ain’t an easy place to play. I think we have improved.”
Minnesota will need all the firepower it can muster against this Seawolves team. The loss of forward Erik Westrum to suspension for fighting won’t help matters; Minnesota will only play three lines on Friday.
Minnesota hasn’t exactly scored in bunches lately, but Alaska-Anchorage isn’t exactly the magical elixir to break their scoring funk. But the Gophers will be feeling the pressure to score and win, even if they don’t want to admit it.