Leimbek, Wendell key in unlocking Gopher depth

David La

Minnesota senior Matt Leimbek, fresh off his two-goal performance against Alaska-Anchorage two weeks ago, fielded media questions with a pizza box in one hand.
The sausage pizza was not some kind of unusual most valuable player award — the entire team munches on post-game pizza — but Leimbek’s position as hero of the day was uncommon.
Third and fourth line players Leimbek and junior Erik Wendell have been overshadowed on a team with loads of returning talent and bolstered by a top recruiting class.
Lately, the working-man’s duo who reflect grit and determination are also stealing some limelight. After scoring their first goals in the Gophers 9-2 pasting of Minnesota-Duluth three weeks ago, the pair have tallied goals of greater significance.
“We’ve been playing well lately and you feel more like a part of the team when you contribute,” Leimbek said.
Minnesota found itself down 3-0 to the Seawolves after two periods. Leimbek filled in for a benched Grant Potulny and responded with a pair of quick goals, breathing life into a flat-lining team.
“We needed that first goal early in the third,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said after the game. “That energized us.”
Wendell popped the second of four third period goals against Wisconsin last Friday, keeping the momentum rolling like a riverboat.
“Successful teams need contributions from everyone,” Wendell said. “That’s what we want to do, and when we get the opportunity it feels good.”
Wendell has appeared in all eight games, Leimbek in five. Neither has started a game any higher than the third line, but Leimbek’s goals against Alaska-Anchorage came while moonlighting on both the second and third lines.
The recent success enjoyed by Leimbek and Wendell is gratifying for both players.
As a freshman, Wendell skated on a line with Johnny Pohl, and was the co-winner of the team’s most determined player award. He also added seven goals and seven assists.
Though Pohl played himself onto a higher line, Wendell said, “I’m not in a degrading place, it’s a place where guys can still make big contributions.”
As a center on a team with Pohl (all-WCHA second team), Erik Westrum (all-WCHA third team) and Jeff Taffe (first round pick in 2000 NHL entry draft) ahead of him, Leimbek’s ice time has decreased each season.
After adjusting to the reduction in shifts, Leimbek has grown more accustomed to his role.
“I think our third and fourth line can be a factor,” Leimbek said. “I thought we played great against Wisconsin last week.”
Minnesota heads to North Dakota this weekend, a series which Fighting Sioux coach Dean Blais said, “will be decided by who plays the best between our best and their best. It’s the big versus the big.”
As they’ve previously done to unsuspecting teams, Leimbek and Wendell look to pay significant dividends from the depths of the line chart.
“I’d like to think so,” Wendell said. “Traditionally, I’ve been able to squeeze goals out against them.”
In the Gophers 5-2 win at North Dakota last year — their first in five years — Wendell scored a third period goal to give Minnesota a two goal lead.
“Which ever second-tier outplays the other is equally important,” Lucia said. “We said coming into the season our third and fourth line had to be better. So far they have been.”
Will Minnesota’s secret weapons Leimbek and Wendell come through in Grand Forks? If so, pizza will serve as the perfect game MVP trophy. Its easier to cut up and share.
Gophers are ailing
Minnesota will be without forward Stuart Senden (knee) and defenseman Matt DeMarchi (knee), while forward Nick Anthony (wrist) is doubtful.
DeMarchi’s loss will likely hurt the most.
“Matt DeMarchi played his best weekend of hockey as a Gopher and showed what a factor he can be,” Lucia said following the Wisconsin series.
Sophomore forward Chad Roberg will see his first career action this weekend.
For North Dakota, forward Ryan Hale is out.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]