Gophers coming to life on the ice

Lou Raguse

MANKATO, Minn. – Late in Minnesota’s men’s hockey game against Minnesota State-Mankato on Friday, a Mavericks fan flung a dead gopher onto the ice.

This might have been appropriate a few months ago during Minnesota’s losing woes.

But at that moment, with Minnesota leading the Mavericks 6-0 and playing its most dominant hockey of the season, throwing a dead gopher on the ice was inappropriate.

Thomas Vanek quickly skated by and with a flick of the wrist, sent the rodent back at its hurler.

Minnesota has recently come alive, going 10-1-2 in its last 13 games, climbing back into the national rankings and oh-so-close to the team fans knew in the previous two seasons.

But what has sprung the Gophers from their almost lifeless play in first eight games of the season?

“We have more cohesion,” senior captain Grant Potulny said. “We’ve playing better as a group of five on the ice, Kellen (Briggs) has found his niche and our ‘D’ has been playing better.”

Recently, the cohesion has been especially prevalent on the road, where Minnesota had most of its struggles in the season’s early going.

Now the Gophers are as calm and collected out of the gates in road arenas as they are in Mariucci Arena. For them, it could have been a matter of getting over the hump.

After a sweep Jan. 9-10 at Colorado College, it appears Minnesota has done so.

Colorado College is perennially a tough road trip for Minnesota but has also been one of the most rewarding.

Last season, the Gophers dropped a Friday game 6-2 to the Tigers at Colorado Springs but rebounded the next night to win 3-2. Minnesota took that win to finish the season 13-1-2 en route to the national title.

“That was our catapult last year,” Potulny said. “Hopefully it’s the same thing this year.

Freshman goaltender Kellen Briggs carried his hot play from Colorado Springs into Mankato, where he shut out the Mavericks on Friday and only allowed two goals in Saturday’s blowout.

“Kellen’s been unbelievable lately,” Potulny said. “Not only does that give us confidence, but it gives our ‘D’ a little more liberty to jump into play and try to do some things.”

While the Gophers have gotten over a hump, coach Don Lucia reminds them that with two months left before playoffs, Minnesota still has a lot of ground to cover in the WCHA.

“We still have a long way to go up the mountain,” Lucia said.

But after sweeping Mankato, Vanek said the Gophers are playing with a renewed hunger, a hunger bound to resurface after starting the season 2-7-1.

And Minnesota’s recent peak has come in timely fashion – Friday, No. 1 North Dakota comes to town to face a Gophers team far different than the one of early November.

This time, Minnesota hopes to avenge the sweep in Grand Forks where you could say the Gophers were dead on the ice.

“We got embarrassed in Grand Forks,” Vanek said. “We’re definitely all fired up to get them back.”