Gophers hope winning ways continue in Michigan

Lou Raguse

Now that they seem to be playing Gophers hockey as they know it, players on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team are looking forward to the Thanksgiving weekend College Hockey Showcase.

The Gophers play in East Lansing, Mich., against Michigan State on Friday and in Ann Arbor, Mich., against No. 5 Michigan on Saturday, one week after sweeping Michigan Tech at Mariucci Arena.

Minnesota’s all-time record in the College Hockey Showcase is 9-2-2. The showcase was set up to give Minnesota and Wisconsin a chance to play fellow Big Ten, but non-WCHA, opponents Michigan and Michigan State.

“I think we always look forward to playing teams we don’t usually play,” Gophers captain Grant Potulny said. “The game seems more pure; we just go out and play.”

Both teams present a challenge to the Gophers, in particular Michigan, which Minnesota eliminated in the Frozen Four semifinals last April.

That game went into overtime when forward Thomas Vanek scored an unassisted goal to send the Gophers to the title game. It was the second consecutive year Minnesota knocked the Wolverines out of the Frozen Four semifinals, and players expect Michigan to look for some revenge Saturday.

“We kind of stuck it to them the last two years,” Potulny said. “I’m sure they’ve been talking about it in the locker room for a while.”

Coach Don Lucia called off practice Tuesday to give the players a chance to rest and study before making the Michigan road trip. The following weekend, Minnesota will travel to Anchorage, Alaska, for a two-game series against the Seawolves.

Lucia was happy to see his team make some great strides last weekend, and hopes the Gophers take some of that momentum to


“We dug ourselves into a hole, and we have to continue to win games if we’re going to climb out of it,” Lucia said. “But it’s always more fun when we win.”

Defenseman Keith Ballard’s return gave Minnesota a tremendous boost against the Huskies. Ballard was rewarded for his one-goal, two-assist performance by being named the WCHA defensive player of the week on Monday.

But the spark Ballard brought to the team on and off the ice after his seven-game absence also impacted the freshman class. Defensemen Mike Vannelli and Jake Taylor registered their first career goals and goaltender Kellen Briggs earned his first shutout.

“It’s one of those things where either you get accustomed to winning or accustomed to losing,” Potulny said. “Most of us here are used to winning so the sweep was important to give the young guys a taste of what that’s like.”

The Gophers are pretty healthy going into the weekend. Forward Jon Waibel missed Saturday’s game after taking a hard hit to the head on the boards Friday. He said Tuesday that his neck was sore but he feels good enough to make the trip to Michigan.

“Hopefully, we’ll see how good we really are and find out what we need to work on,” he said.