Sweep a must in drive for five

Aaron Kirscht

A season ago, the Gophers men’s hockey team returned home from its series with Colorado College with a win and a tie. Those three points propelled Minnesota to a final-weekend showdown with Wisconsin, with a possible league championship in the balance.
This weekend the stakes aren’t quite so high. The Gophers are in seventh place, with only a slim chance of climbing into the fifth spot that would give them home ice in the first round of the playoffs in two weeks.
Colorado College is also out of the running for the championship, but this weekend will be crucial in determining playoff seeding. A Tigers win over Minnesota would guarantee them a playoff series at home, and if Colorado College and the Gophers stand pat in fourth and seventh place, respectively, they will meet again in the first round in Colorado Springs.
But as the old cliche goes, there’s plenty of hockey left to be played.
“It’s so hard to say, isn’t it?” Minnesota coach Doug Woog said. “There are so many scenarios for what could happen. But it all depends on how many we win. If we win four, who knows?”
Colorado College is actually one of the few teams that’s played up to its billing this season. The Tigers were picked to finish second — behind North Dakota and ahead of Minnesota — in the preseason coach’s poll. But Wisconsin and St. Cloud State stole their thunder with a run of brilliant play to open the season.
The Tigers, however, are roaring to the finish. Colorado College won twice at St. Cloud State last weekend, 7-4 and 3-1, to push its road record to 9-5 in the WCHA, 14-6-1 overall. With a little luck, and some more help from the swooning Badgers, Colorado College (18-11-3 overall, 12-10-2 WCHA) could wiggle its way into third place.
“Our team played its best hockey of the season last weekend,” Tigers coach Don Lucia said. “We’ve had a lot of success on the road, so that’s not so surprising. Hopefully, we can build on that success and gain some momentum heading into the playoffs.”
The Tigers’ special teams have played well of late, scoring a power play goal in seven consecutive games and holding opponents scoreless with a man advantage in 17 of the last 18 games. Tigers forward Brian Swanson is among WCHA leaders with 27 points.
Also working in the Tigers’ favor is the litany of injuries that will leave the Gophers more permanently shorthanded. Minnesota junior Mike Anderson, who scored twice in the Gophers’ 4-3 overtime loss to Colorado College earlier this season at Mariucci Arena, is still out with a sprained knee, and freshman Aaron Miskovich had surgery this week to reset several facial fractures. Both could return next weekend against St. Cloud State.
But freshman Stuart Senden is out for the remainder of the season and senior co-captain Casey Hankinson is day-to-day, both with shoulder problems. Minnesota players have now missed a total of 95 games and 248 practices because of illness or injury this season, compared to just 53 games and 160 practices all of last season.
Healthy or not, the Gophers’ run to the postseason begins this weekend.
“I’ve always said we don’t say must’ when it gets down to the last game,” Woog said, “but the only way we’re going to protect ourselves and have a chance at home ice is to win two. That’s a big chore, but we’ve got some good players, too, and we just have to do it.”