Minn. prepares for postseason push

The Gophers travel to Anchorage to compete in a crucial series.

Hockey vs. North Dakota

Ian Larson

Hockey vs. North Dakota

Max Sanders

For a Gophers team that has struggled much of the year, it has come down to this: a 10-game stretch to close the regular season that will decide the postseason fate of Don LuciaâÄôs squad. âÄúItâÄôs do-or-die right now,âÄù sophomore Nico Sacchetti said. âÄúWe have to win.âÄù Minnesota will travel to Alaska-Anchorage this weekend to face the first of what will be five-straight Western Collegiate Hockey Association competitors to end the regular season. Each series from here on out is absolutely critical for the Gophers, as last weekendâÄôs sweep at the hands of St. Cloud State left them in seventh place in the WCHA conference standings, just one point ahead of Alaska-Anchorage. âÄúItâÄôs the same song; we have to have some other guys step up and score offensively,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúObviously [Jacob] Cepis is giving an injection with that, but we have to have better starts.âÄù Slow starts have plagued Minnesota all season long. In last weekendâÄôs sweep, the Gophers allowed a combined five first-period goals to the Huskies. In addition to the slow starts, Minnesota was unable to capitalize offensively despite having multiple opportunities. âÄúWe had those second and third opportunities. We had rebound chances. We just werenâÄôt bearing down and scoring on those chances,âÄù Sacchetti said. While the Gophers look for answers on offense, it is the defensive effort that is key to the teamâÄôs successes or failures. Minnesota is 12-0-0 when holding opponents to two goals or fewer and 0-12-2 when opponents score three or more goals. Lucia said limiting opponentâÄôs chances is crucial to best put his team in position for a win. âÄúIf you give up three or more goals, the chance of winning isnâÄôt great, but if you give up two, most teams are going to win,âÄù Lucia said. The Gophers will be facing a team they have dominated of late, holding a 15-2-2 record over the Seawolves in the past 19 games, including the only sweep of a WCHA opponent at Mariucci Arena all season. However, Alaska-Anchorage has been playing better recently, going 3-2-1 over its past six games including a weekend split against then-No. 7 Colorado College. âÄúFor the first time, theyâÄôve been the healthiest theyâÄôve been all year long because theyâÄôve had to battle some injuries, too,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúItâÄôll be another difficult WCHA road test for us.âÄù Lucia said Mike Hoeffel, who is out with mononucleosis, is still on track to return in time for the Denver series beginning Feb. 12. While the Gophers have missed the scoring touch Hoeffel brings, they have stayed afloat offensively thanks to Cepis. Cepis has played in just eight games after being forced to sit out the first half of the season due to transfer rules after coming from Bowling Green. In his short time, Cepis is already fifth on the team in goals scored with five, three of which have come during WCHA play. âÄúHeâÄôs played very well. HeâÄôs a guy thatâÄôs created instant offense for us,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe have to have him continue to create that offense, but like weâÄôve been searching most of the year, we have to have other guys step up as well.âÄù On the defensive side, Lucia was noncommittal about the goalie situation. The Gophers began the year alternating Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson in net, but Kangas has received a majority of the playing time of late. Lucia said a decision as to who will start will continue to be made on a game-by-game basis. âÄúItâÄôs nothing thatâÄôs decided before the weekend begins,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôre just going to go up there on Friday and try to play the best we possibly can and figure out what will be the best lineup for Saturday.âÄù As bleak as the standings look now for LuciaâÄôs squad, the competitiveness of the WCHA conference leaves room for hope. Minnesota is three points behind North Dakota and seven points behind a two-way tie for fourth place. If the Gophers are to make a run at having home-ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA tournament, they know they must finish the regular season strong, beginning this weekend. âÄúI think sweeps are necessary now,âÄù Sacchetti said. âÄúWhether itâÄôs Alaska or Denver, a sweepâÄôs going to be just as important out of any of those big four teams that weâÄôre playing in the next four weeks.âÄù