Weekend series as important as first place for U

Michael Rand

Considering the Gophers hockey team is facing Michigan Tech — a squad with only two WCHA wins — this weekend hardly seems to qualify on a list of Minnesota’s most important series of the season.
The Gophers (16-8, 13-7 in the WCHA) dismantled Michigan Tech (5-17-3, 2-15-3) in consecutive 3-0 shutouts earlier this season at Mariucci Arena, and the Huskies have done little since then to make anyone think the outcome will be different this weekend in Houghton, Mich.
But this season, when four teams are separated by one point in the league standings, even the series that appear lopsided are important.
While title contenders North Dakota and Colorado College are playing each other, and St. Cloud State is playing a non-league series with Notre Dame, Minnesota will go into the weekend knowing that four points is well within its reach.
“People may not look at this series too closely because it’s not a matchup of two top teams,” Gophers freshman Rico Pagel said. “But we can’t drop a game here. If we do, we might as well have not beaten St. Cloud last weekend.”
Minnesota and Colorado College (26 points) trail WCHA co-leaders North Dakota and St. Cloud State by one point.
But the Huskies, who have played 22 league games thus far compared to 20 for the other contenders, will drop out of first place when their schedule evens out this weekend. If the host Tigers split with the Sioux this weekend, the Gophers could move into first place.
“We have to control our own destiny,” Gophers co-captain Mike Crowley said. “But there’s no doubt we’ll be interested in what happens in the other games.”
Many of the Gophers players were particularly happy about St. Cloud State’s weekend of nonconference play.
“It’s nice that the schedule is finally going to be even,” Gophers forward Casey Hankinson said. “Some (Huskies players) were talking about being in first place, but they had also played a couple more games than the rest of us.”
Like Crowley mentioned, however, the Gophers need to take care of their own business before they can talk about first place.
Although it may seem obvious, scoring a couple of early goals would be especially advantageous for the Gophers against Michigan Tech.
The Huskies are averaging just more than two goals a game in league play, the worst offensive output in the WCHA. When the team is competitive, it is usually because one of their goalies — Luciano Caravaggio or David Weninger — plays a strong game.
That goaltending tandem was the only thing that spared the Huskies from even more lopsided scores earlier this season at Mariucci Arena. The duo combined to save 81 of 87 shots the Gophers attempted in that series.
Following this weekend’s series, the Gophers travel to North Dakota for a crucial meeting. Minnesota players are aware of the series, but they said they aren’t overlooking Michigan Tech. The Gophers’ recent history at UND — 0-3-1 in the past two years — is a reminder that they need to pick up wins this weekend when they are attainable.
“We have to come here and get four points,” Pagel said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Injury update
The two Gophers with long-term injuries — Erik Day and Brian LaFleur — are the only players expected to miss the trip.
Gophers trainer Bob Broxterman said Crowley has a sore ankle from the St. Cloud State series but is expected to play.
Minnesota will also be bolstered by the return of Erik Rasmussen, who missed last weekend’s series because he wasn’t registered for enough classes.