Halfway through, Minnesota has few reasons to complain

Scrappy veterans, eager youngsters and Kellen Briggs have all contributed this year.

Ben Goessling

Halfway through the WCHA schedule, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team resembles a high school whiz kid coming home with “A’s” on a handful of graduate-level midterms.

Even with 10 first-year players among them, the Gophers have used a mix of grit and mercurial talent to achieve results that pretty much caught everyone by surprise.

The team doesn’t resume conference play until Jan. 8-9 against Colorado College, making this a natural time to stop and look at what has powered Minnesota to the top of the national polls.

Minnesota (13-4-0, 9-3-0 WCHA) is in third place in the conference standings but has played two fewer games than Wisconsin and four fewer than North Dakota.

The Gophers are winning with a mix of scrappy veterans and learn-as-they-go youngsters, with the superb play of goaltender Kellen Briggs tying it all together.

“I don’t think he’s had an off night yet,” forward Danny Irmen said.

The rest of the team has experienced a couple hiccups, including Friday losses to North Dakota and Colorado College. But it’s a safe bet that Minnesota didn’t expect to finish a treacherous first-half schedule with 18 conference points and wins over five of the top 10 teams in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online poll.

Minnesota’s second-half schedule includes only seven conference road games. And the Gophers play just two teams ranked in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online poll, putting them in prime position for their first WCHA regular-season title since 1996-97.

Three things that worked

  • Briggs, plain and simple. The sophomore from Colorado Springs, Colo., leads the WCHA in goals-against average (1.93) with a defensive corps that includes three freshmen and has been without juniors P.J. Atherton and Peter Kennedy.
  • Points from unlikely sources. Junior forward Tyler Hirsch has rebounded from an uneven 2003-04 campaign and racked up a nation-leading 19 assists, or one more than he had all of last year.

And Minnesota’s fourth line, featuring seniors Jake Fleming and Garrett Smaagaard, might be its most productive. The two players, along with frequent linemate Brent Borgen, have a plus/minus ratio of plus-22 for the season.

  • Natural chemistry. In a year when almost all the Gophers’ lines were built from scratch, the coaching staff hit on a winner by putting high school and junior hockey teammates Ryan Potulny and Irmen together.

Gino Guyer and Andy Sertich, teammates at Greenway High School in Coleraine, Minn., have also skated together in small spurts, and the Gophers have two other pairs of junior hockey teammates among this year’s freshmen.

“People who worked well together in the past have a great chance to succeed at the next level,” Guyer said. “You know where they’re going to be already, and you get excited to relive the old times.”

Three potential pitfalls

  • Minnesota could have problems if its scoring-by-committee approach dries up. Potulny (17 goals, five assists, 22 points) and Irmen (10-12-22) have carried the load so far this year. But as of yet, a consistent third goal-scorer hasn’t emerged.

“We have to have other guys chip in,” coach Don Lucia said. “It’s important for Gino to score. It’s important for Andy Sertich to get on the scoreboard. It can’t just be (Potulny and Irmen).”

  • The Gophers’ inconsistent power play needs to find a rhythm. For the second-straight Saturday, Minnesota had a big night with the man advantage, scoring three goals after coming up empty Friday at St. Cloud State.

Minnesota seems to have locked onto something by moving Irmen in front of the net and crashing the goal with him and Kris Chucko. But it will take an improvement from the point for the Gophers to consistently produce goals on the power play.

“You don’t score a lot on pretty plays on the power play,” Lucia said. “You score on rebounds and tips.”

  • The Gophers defensive corps will have some changes during the second half, with Atherton’s academic eligibility reinstated and Kennedy waiting to hear if a hip injury will end his season.

Minnesota loses Nate Hagemo and Alex Goligoski, perhaps its two best defensemen so far, to the World Junior Championship from Dec. 25-Jan. 4.

But the biggest key might be junior Chris Harrington, who has had his moments but leads the team with 58 penalty minutes and has admittedly struggled at times.

The race

Since the conference went to 10 teams in 1993-94, the average champion has totaled 45 points in the conference.

But five times in that span, including the last three years, the champion has come home with 43.

So, 44 would seem as a logical goal for a WCHA title.

If Minnesota wins 13 of its last 16 in the conference, which would allow for splits with second-ranked Colorado College and No. 4 Wisconsin along with another loss somewhere along the line, the Gophers would hit that mark. And aside from a deceptively tough weekend with Minnesota-Duluth at the end of January, it’s hard to find another pothole on the schedule.

But nobody is too worried about the McNaughton Cup, yet.

“The great thing about our team is we don’t have any expectations,” Hirsch said. “If we work hard, we have a chance to win every night.”