Gophers get three-week break after rough first half of the year

The preseason WCHA No. 2 favorite is two games under .500 in conference play.

Three weeks off will give the Minnesota men’s hockey team plenty of time to enjoy the holidays and recover from a hectic first half.

But four days after Christmas, the Gophers will be back on the ice – hosting the Dodge Holiday Classic at Mariucci Arena.

This year, Minnesota (9-8-1 overall, 5-7-0 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) will play Rochester Institute of Technology on Friday before facing either Air Force or Boston College in Saturday’s finale.

“It’s always fun to get back after the holidays,” junior forward Blake Wheeler said. “The Holiday Classic is always a good tournament.”

No matter who they face in the second game, Saturday’s matchup should prove to be interesting.

A game with Air Force would mean a rematch of last season’s NCAA West Regional Semifinal game that saw the Gophers score three unanswered goals in a 4-3 comeback win.

Meanwhile, a Boston College contest would pit Minnesota against an East Coast team that is in a similar situation to the Gophers.

Both teams have struggled in the first half after coming into the season ranked as one of the nation’s top teams.

Furthermore, both teams lost key players last year to early departures and are now playing shorthanded because of injuries and infractions.

The situation won’t get any better for Minnesota as four players will miss the tournament to play for the U.S. Under-20 National Team in Europe, although coach Don Lucia is optimistic.

“With the guys at the World Juniors, it’s an opportunity for some of the younger guys to get an increased role and to see how they handle it,” he said.

Closing up shop

Following the Holiday Classic, the Gophers will host Wayne State for the final time as the Warriors will drop men’s hockey following this year.

The program will dissolve after this year because of financial reasons, leaving the future of College Hockey America (which includes Bemidji State) in question.

“Anytime you eliminate a program, it is a very difficult move,” Wayne State Director of Athletics Rob Fournier said. “We exhausted every possible option before taking this step.”

Minnesota has played just two games against the Warriors in school history – a series last season that the Gophers swept 7-1 and 5-1.

DQ Cup games

After the Wayne State series, Minnesota will have four games in which it can extend its lead in this year’s DQ Cup standings.

Each season, the four WCHA teams from Minnesota compete against each other for the DQ Cup.

Minnesota leads the standings with a 2-0-0 record after sweeping Minnesota State in November.

The Gophers will play a home-and-away series with St. Cloud State on Jan. 11-12. Friday’s game is at Mariucci while Saturday the game will be held at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.

The Huskies are currently on a five-game losing streak, but have another six games before the Minnesota series.

Following the St. Cloud State series, Minnesota will travel north to take on Minnesota-Duluth at the DECC.

The Bulldogs have what would normally be considered a light schedule before taking on the Gophers, with series against Bemidji State and Minnesota State.

But Minnesota-Duluth struggled the last two weekends against teams it theoretically should have beaten.

Winless in their last four games, the Bulldogs will go into the break after going 0-2-2 against Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota State.

Television schedule

Even though the majority of University students will be home for break, they can still catch every Gophers game except the Wayne State finale on television.

Fox Sports Net North will pick up six of the games while the Big Ten Network will cover the Friday night matchup against St. Cloud State.