Vanek’s production down as Gophers near playoffs

Adam Fink

Hockey scouts are captivated with him. His teammates are in awe of his talent. And the coaching staff realizes his game-changing ability.

But for the past five games, Thomas Vanek has been quiet for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

Since tallying two goals and one assist in a 5-4 comeback victory at Minnesota-Duluth on Feb. 21, the freshman from Graz, Austria, has tallied only four assists.

After defeating the Bulldogs, Vanek was averaging a team-high 1.47 points per game. Since then he is averaging .80 points per game.

“The thing about him,” a Florida Panthers scout who wished to remain anonymous said, “is he either shows up and dominates or doesn’t show up. But he definitely has the talent to control a game.”

Gophers coach Don Lucia isn’t worried about the slump Vanek – the team’s leading scorer with 51 points this season – is working through.

Although admittedly biased, Lucia believes Vanek, who trails only North Dakota’s Zach Parise in freshman scoring, should be the WCHA’s rookie of the year.

“He is still getting chances,” Lucia said. “Scorers want to score, and when they don’t it can be frustrating.”

In addition, Lucia said Vanek is still making a difference despite not recording scores.

“He is in on the plays,” the fourth-year coach said. “Only one person can score on each play while someone has to get them the puck.”

Until recently, Vanek and linemate Troy Riddle were the only Gophers players above or near double digits in goals. Now, six guys sit with eight or more in that category.

That balance has alleviated some of the scoring burden on Vanek. But with the WCHA playoffs beginning this weekend against Michigan Tech, the 6-foot-2-inch, 207-pound forward is expected to regain his scoring touch.

“He has improved a great deal this season,” Lucia said. “It’s important he continues to affect the game ñ whether with assists or goals.”

Power play success

With Grant Potulny out for half the year and 14 underclassmen regularly playing, the power play struggled earlier this year.

But the power play has notched a goal in the past 13 consecutive games. During the stretch, the team has scored a total of 21 of its total 53 goals with the man advantage.

Lucia attributes some of the success to Potulny, who has re-established himself as a feared player on the power play, and to the cohesiveness of the lines.

“The young guys are getting better,” Lucia said. “We have two units that can regularly score.”

The first unit has consisted of Vanek, Riddle, Matt Koalska, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard. The second unit has consisted of Potulny, senior Matt DeMarchi, freshmen Tyler Hirsch, Andy Sertich and Chris Harrington.

In addition, Lucia has experimented with four forwards on the power play.

“We are feeling real good out there,” Hirsch said last week. “We seem to know what each other are going to do and it shows in the results.”

The recent surge has increased the Gophers’ power-play success to 25 percent, good for second in the conference and a number Lucia finds acceptable.

Expecting upsets

Both Lucia and St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl – whose team took one point from Minnesota last weekend – are anticipating some upsets in the first round of the WCHA playoffs this weekend.

Top-seeded Colorado College should have little trouble disposing of Alaska-Anchorage, but after that, every game should be a challenge.

Minnesota faces Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato hosts Wisconsin, Denver travels to North Dakota and St. Cloud State plays at Minnesota-Duluth.

“There is good parity in the league right now,” Dahl said. “Seven teams have been relatively close all year, and I really can see an upset this year.”

The Huskies could be one of those teams when they face the Bulldogs. The teams split their four games this season, with both winning once at home and once on the road.

History is not on any of the lower-seeds’ side. The past two seasons has seen all five home teams advance to the WCHA Final Five. The last team to beat a higher seed was Minnesota, a sixth seed who defeated fifth-seeded Colorado College in 1999-00.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes

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