Late-season pains cause final series to takeon added significance

Ben Goessling

Three months ago, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team’s trip to Michigan Tech looked like a perfectly meaningless way for it to end the regular season.

On paper, it looked like Minnesota would have one of the league’s top three spots locked up, and the Gophers could let the regular season wind down without consequence in the snow drifts of Houghton, Mich.

But it was also on paper that somebody wrote the Y2K crisis would set the world back hundreds of years. In reality, Minnesota’s visit to Michigan Tech this weekend looms as one of the biggest series of the year.

The Gophers need a sweep to keep any chance of third place in the WCHA alive, and Minnesota could also use a second-straight sweep for momentum headed into the conference playoffs.

There’s also the little matter of revenge after Michigan Tech swept Minnesota in January at Mariucci Arena .

“We’re definitely looking forward to playing them again,” center Ryan Potulny said. “We’re going to play a little harder this weekend (than usual).”

Minnesota is three points behind Wisconsin for third in the conference standings. The Gophers can pass the Badgers if they sweep and Wisconsin earns one or no points this weekend at Minnesota-Duluth.

The move up would benefit Minnesota for two reasons. First, it would set up a first-round playoff matchup with Minnesota State-Mankato or St. Cloud State – two teams the Gophers hold a 4-0 record against – rather than Alaska-Anchorage, which is 2-0-1 against Minnesota this year

Second, third place would exempt the Gophers from the play-in game of the WCHA Final Five, should they make it that far.

“It’s nothing we can control,” coach Don Lucia said. “We’ll see where we’re at on Saturday.”

One thing the Gophers can control, however, is how they respond to the Huskies defense.

The Huskies blocked 32 shots in the last series, largely by crowding their large defensemen into shooting lanes.

This tactic has been used against the Gophers ever since, and they figure to see more of it on Houghton’s small rink.

“We need to fake a lot more shots, change angles, that kind of thing,” Potulny said. “Last time against them, we were just throwing shots on net.”

Minnesota had perhaps its best game since December against St. Cloud State on Saturday, and forward Tyler Hirsch said the Gophers will be fine if they pick up where they left off.

“I don’t think we need to change much right now,” he said. “We don’t want to think about our stupid slump. Hopefully, we can just build positive momentum.”

In that spirit, Lucia said he will stick mostly with the bigger lineup he used Saturday, including P.J. Atherton on defense and forwards Mike Howe and Barry Tallackson on the first line.

Now, it’s just up to the Gophers to finish the job.

“Last Saturday we competed, but now we’ll see if it’s just because we put a foot up their rear ends,” Lucia said. “We want to go into the playoffs feeling good.”