Minnesota looks to move up with weekend series

by Josh Linehan

The seven-plus hour bus ride north to Houghton, Michigan — home of Michigan Tech — is one of the most unique road trips in college sports.
And maybe if this weekend was early in the season, the Minnesota men’s hockey team (15-13-2, 11-9-2 WCHA) could afford to take it as such — just another point on the learning curve for a young team.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, their freshmen and sophomores don’t have time to reflect on their first long bus trip north.
They’ll be expected to contribute.
Minnesota needs points, and there is no easier way to get them on the road in the WCHA than by visiting the cellar-dwelling Huskies (4-28-0, 2-22-0).
The message is clear: Grow up in a hurry or start setting tee times.
Throughout an up-and-down season, Minnesota coach Don Lucia has stuck with members of his young squad despite poor performances.
His logic and patience have been well-founded. If Minnesota is to make any kind of run at the end of this season, they will need performance from four full lines.
“This time of year, we look for them to be consistent,” Lucia said of his young players. “We want them to even out the peaks and valleys. They have to help in the playoffs, or we won’t be playing hockey very long.”
The Gophers will be trying to pull themselves out of a relatively large valley. Minnesota dropped a 5-1 decision to Colorado College last weekend in a game that would have vaulted the Gophers to third place in the league standings.
Michigan Tech, meanwhile, is mired in the Grand Canyon of ruts. The Huskies have won just two WCHA games this season, both against eighth-place Minnesota-Duluth.
And while the matchup seems ideal for a Gophers team needing a sweep, Michigan Tech has nothing to lose and would like nothing better than to play spoiler.
When asked if he was ready to make the bus trip to Michigan Tech, sophomore John Pohl was honest.
“No. I don’t think you’re ever ready to make this trip,” Pohl said. “But we’re as ready as we’ll ever be, and it’s do or die now. They’ll play tough at home, and if we play like we did (last Saturday), we’ll be done playing hockey soon.”
If the Gophers want to keep playing hockey into March, one line Lucia will look to for added production is centered by Jeff Taffe.
Minnesota coaches have been looking to play Taffe — last year’s Minnesota Mr. Hockey from Hastings — at his natural center position. They believe they’ve found a solid line with Taffe centering his high school teammate Dan Welch and either Rico Pagel or Pat O’Leary.
“We like having Jeff at center,” Lucia said.”It’s his natural position, and he can carry the puck through the neutral zone more and hopefully create some more scoring opportunities.”
Taffe, for his part, is just happy to be skating, but said he does feel more comfortable at center, especially with Welch on the wing.
“I’ve played center my whole life, so it is more comfortable,” Taffe said. “I’ve played at both wings, and that was fine, and I’m here to do whatever I can to help the team. But I’ve loved having Dan on my line. We have a good time.”

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]