Gophers hockey begins tough November against Wisconsin

by David La

Earlier this week, Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia took a moment to listen as the roll call of impressive numbers were read-off.
The No. 5 Gophers closed a mild October schedule undefeated (5-0-1), received impressive contributions from their lauded freshmen class (11 goals) and put up scorching power-play numbers (13 goals at a WCHA-best 44.8 percent clip).
Lucia smiled, but with an eye on the turbulent road ahead, added, “We feel good about what we’ve done, but now we have to show we can play with the big boys.”
This weekend, Minnesota hosts one of college hockey’s deepest and most physical teams — cross-state rival Wisconsin.
The second-ranked Badgers (7-1-0) beat the Gophers in all five meetings last season, en route to winning the WCHA regular season title.
“Last year is the first time ever that we were able to win five games,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “I’m sure that note is up on (Minnesota’s) lockeroom wall right now as we speak.”
Sauer, in his 19th year behind the Badgers bench, couldn’t have guessed more right about the lingering effects of last season’s sweep.
“That’s embarrassing,” Minnesota’s Johnny Pohl said. “I talked to guys that used to play here and they said even when they had losing seasons they always beat Wisconsin.”
Led by All-American’s Dany Heatley (wing) and Jeff Dessner (defense), Wisconsin boasts one of its deepest teams ever. In Wisconsin’s seven wins this season, seven different skaters tallied a game-winning goal.
“We’re deeper than people give us credit for,” Sauer said. “I could play only one freshman this weekend.”
Unlike their rivals, the Gophers improved depth relies heavily on freshmen contributions. The newcomers are tied with the seniors in goals scored and are making a profound impression on the veterans.
“We knew we were going to need them,” assistant captain Dylan Mills said recently. “They’ve accepted that responsibility, and we’re not going anywhere without their help. Maybe they’re taking us around right now.”
Somewhat lost in a weekend certain to feature two inspired games and unlikely heroes, is the squaring-off between the top two scorers in the WCHA, the Badgers Heatley and Minnesota’s Erik Westrum.
The Gophers know the prospect of slowing the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Heatley — voted the WCHA preseason player of the year — is as tough as a three-day old porkchop.
“We have to take him out right away,” Minnesota defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “We have to make him not want the puck. If we finish our checks to a `T’ this weekend, we’ll probably come out with two wins. If we don’t, things won’t go our way.”
The Gophers inability to close the deal resulted in three Wisconsin wins last season by a lone goal, including an overtime loss.
The Badgers are “a team that’s going to grind it out and take advantage of your mistakes,” Lucia said.
Snatching at least a split this weekend from Wisconsin will surely bring a more lasting smile to Lucia’s face.

Minnesota’s Stuart Senden, who missed the Alaska-Anchorage series with a knee injury, will not play this weekend.

Wisconsin’s Kevin Granato did not make the trip to Boston last weekend due to injury but will play against the Gophers. Granato has two goals in six games this season.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]. He can also be reached by calling (612) 627-4070 x3245.