Gophers split against series finale

After a Friday win, the Gophers dropped a Saturday decision 3-2 to Duluth.

Brian Deutsch

Coming into this weekend’s regular-season finale with Minnesota-Duluth, the six seniors on the Minnesota men’s hockey team knew they could be playing their final games in Mariucci Arena.

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minnesota state wcha first round
what: Men’s hockey
when: 7:37 p.m., Friday
where: Mankato

Without knowing at the time that this weekend was it for them, the class made the most of its final home games.

The Gophers (15-14-9 overall, 9-12-7 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) split with the Bulldogs – winning 4-1 Friday and falling 3-2 in Saturday’s follow-up.

All five seniors who saw the ice over the weekend were able to notch at least one point, while forward Ben Gordon helped lead the way with a pair of assists and the eventual game-winning goal in Friday’s win.

After the game, Gordon reflected on his final weekend at home.

“It really hit me when we got off the ice, that it was the last time I was playing a game out there,” Gordon said. “It’s a special thing that not a lot of people get to do, and it’s sad when it ends.”

Forward Mike Howe, who skated with Gordon and Wheeler on the Gophers’ top-scoring line, picked up two assists over the weekend in addition to setting up an additional goal.

Although he didn’t receive credit for that helper, Howe’s line, which scored the game’s opening goal 37 seconds after face-off, was praised by senior forward Evan Kaufmann.

“Blake, Ben and Mike had a great start to the game. They were firing on cylinders,” Kaufmann, who also tallied Friday night, said.

But perhaps the most boisterous praise came from coach Don Lucia, who said the biggest problem Minnesota will have to deal with as the WCHA playoffs begin is figuring out how to order the team’s roster now that sophomore forward Jay Barriball should be back in the line-up.

Closing out the class, senior defenseman Derek Peltier and senior forward Tom Pohl each added an assist over the weekend.

“(The seniors) are playing good hockey right now. I think we came off that open weekend, they knew their careers were winding down,” Lucia said after Friday’s win. “You have to have your seniors step up and your best players step up. They certainly did that.”

The only senior who didn’t make an appearance this weekend was goalie Brent Solei.

But Solei will graduate with the program’s highest winning percentage (1.000, 1-0-0) – his lone win coming earlier this season in a 5-1 game against Wayne State.

Wheeler done?

The six seniors might not be the only Minnesota players who have played their final game in Mariucci Arena.

Wheeler is most likely the next NHL-bound player from the team, although he has yet to announce his plans for next year.

If Wheeler did in fact suit up for the last time at home this weekend, he left quite a final impression.

The Plymouth native, who was selected fifth overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, tallied a pair of goals and an assist in Friday’s win.

Wheeler’s long-range empty-netter (15) with 24 seconds remaining kept him one goal ahead of Gordon for the team high.

Playoff pairing

For just the second time under Lucia, the seventh-seeded Gophers will be on the road to open up the conference playoffs – taking on Minnesota State, the WCHA’s fourth seed.

The Mavericks are the only conference team Minnesota has swept this year, but since then Minnesota State has become arguably one of the hottest teams in the conference.

The only other time Lucia has taken his team on the road was in his first season with the Gophers (1999-2000) when Minnesota swept Colorado College.