Gophers’ Okposo getting hot at right time

Sophomore forward Kyle Okposo has scored four goals in his last three games.

Brian Deutsch

As the Minnesota men’s hockey team heads into perhaps its toughest weekend of the season, one member of the Gophers squad appears to be returning to his true form.

MINNESOTA

(6-4-0 overall, 2-4-0 WCHA) National Ranking: 13
Minnesota leads the all-time series 43-14-5

Minnesota Stat
Minnesota’s senior class has not lost a game to Michigan in four years. Earlier this season, the Gophers edged Michigan 4-3 to win the Icebreaker Invitational. Michigan hasn’t lost since.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Junior goalie Jeff Frazee: After last Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Alaska-Anchorage, Lucia said Frazee needs to earn the right to start every game. A win against either of these teams will be a testimonial to Frazee’s ability.
Freshman defenseman Cade Fairchild: Fairchild is second among WCHA freshman defensemen in scoring with seven points (two goals and five assists). He picked up assists on both of Minnesota’s goals last Saturday.

The past two weeks have seen sophomore forward Kyle Okposo looking more like the player who earned Minnesota’s Frank Pond Rookie of the Year award last year, as he was second on the team in scoring with 40 points (19 goals and 21 assists).

“I feel like I’ve got a pep in my step, and I’m starting to play like the player of old,” Okposo said last Saturday.

This season, Okposo scored in Minnesota’s season-opening 4-3 win over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but was held without a goal for the next eight games.

But in the Gophers’ last two series against Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage, the New York Islanders’ first-round draft pick has come alive – scoring four goals in his last three games.

“He’s just playing in a different gear, he’s much more relaxed and little more carefree,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “That’s when most players, especially offensive players, are going to play their best.”

Michigan State

(8-3-0 overall, 4-2-0 WCHA) National Ranking: 5

WHERE: East Lansing, Mich.
WHEN: 6:00 p.m., Friday
TV: None
RADIO: WCCO AM 830

Michigan State Stat
The defending national champions have just three losses this season. They lost their season opener to North Dakota 6-0 and were swept last weekend at home by No. 1 Miami (Ohio).

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Junior forward Tim Kennedy: Kennedy leads the team with 15 points (10 goals and five assists). He also leads the CCHA in power-play points (10) and game-winning goals (4).
Senior defenseman Daniel Vukovic: Vuckovic leads CCHA defensemen in scoring with 11 points (two goals and nine assists). He’s also ranked second on the Spartans’ roster in points.

One way that Okposo has been able to find his groove lately is by taking up a new spot on Minnesota’s top power-play line.

Okposo, who skates as a forward regularly, has been taking a post at the point lately alongside freshman defenseman Cade Fairchild when Minnesota is on the advantage.

And with senior Ben Gordon, junior Blake Wheeler and sophomore Jay Barriball acting as forwards on the unit, Okposo has been able to unleash his powerful slap shot that as of late, proved effective.

Two weeks ago against the Mavericks, Okposo ripped a power-play shot from the blue line that tied the score at 2-2. The Gophers would eventually go on to win 5-3 including another even-strength goal from Okposo.

“I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities, which has been great for my game,” Okposo said. “It’s helped my confidence a lot.”

Minnesota will need another strong performance from Okposo this weekend as the team will be competing in the College Hockey Showcase.

Michigan

(11-1-0 overall, 8-0-0 WCHA) National Ranking: 2

WHERE: Ann Arbor, Mich.
WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
RADIO: KTNF AM 950, 100.7 FM, 106.5 FM

Michigan STAT
Before Michigan and Michigan State joined the CCHA, this weekend’s four competing teams played in the Big Ten Championship between 1959 and 1981. Ohio State is the only other program in the Big Ten to sponsor men’s hockey.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Senior forward Kevin Porter: Porter is the nation’s top point-getter, notching 18 points already this season (13 goals and five assists). He had six points (four goals and two assists) last weekend alone.
Freshman forward Aaron Palushaj: With 12 points (five goals and seven assists), Palushaj is second among CCHA freshman in scoring this season behind the RedHawks’ Carter Camper.

The Gophers (7-5-0 overall, 3-5-0 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) will play one game apiece against two of the nation’s best teams.

On Friday night, Minnesota takes on No. 3 Michigan State (8-3-0, 4-2-0 Central Collegiate Hockey Association) in East Lansing before traveling to Ann Arbor for a Saturday showdown with No. 2 Michigan (11-1-0, 8-0-0 CCHA).

Wolverines senior forward Kevin Porter has been looking forward to this weekend since Minnesota defeated Michigan 4-3 at the Icebreaker Invitational on Oct. 19.

“Since I’ve been here, (Minnesota) has always beaten us by a few goals. It’s finally nice to come close,” Porter, who is the nation’s top scorer, said after that loss. “I know we have them at Thanksgiving, so hopefully we’ll get them back then.”

Lucia said the Gophers will have a normal week of practice despite the Thanksgiving break.