Fresh troops give Gophers new outlook

Aaron Kirscht

The problems encountered by the Gophers men’s hockey team this season have been as numerous as they have been untimely.
But with a handful of players returning to the lineup this weekend against Denver, on the heels of Minnesota’s first sweep of the season, there is a sense that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is within sight.
“It’s hard to be at the bottom of the barrel and feel like every game’s a must-win,” said Gophers captain Casey Hankinson. “But there’s an old quote about problems being 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you react to it. So we’ve just got to try to make the most of what chance we’ve got. Hopefully it starts on Friday.”
The Gophers hope Denver (4-16 overall, 3-11 in the WCHA) will be a willing participant. The Pioneers are tied with Minnesota (7-13, 3-9) for last place in the league, 17 points behind St. Cloud State’s league-leading pace.
The series will mark the return of forward Ryan Kraft, who missed the last five games with a broken hand, and defenseman Bill Kohn, who suffered a concussion in the second game of the Mariucci Classic and sat out last weekend’s sweep over Mankato State. Freshman Aaron Miskovich will also be back in uniform after a stint with the U.S. Junior National team.
Minnesota went 3-3 with that threesome out of the lineup and is showing some signs of rejuvenation — especially in the scoring column. The Gophers’ top line of Casey Hankinson, Wyatt Smith and Dave Spehar has been producing points at a wicked pace, combining for 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in the last four games.
But the reappearance of Kraft, Kohn and Miskovich on the Minnesota bench could have far-reaching effects on both the physical and mental makeup of the Gophers.
“When you’re sitting on the bench and look down and only see a few guys sitting next to you,” Hankinson said, “you wonder where the hell everybody is. It’s going to be nice. You feel more like a team when you’ve got everyone active.”
Just how active they’ll be — Kohn and Kraft in particular — is still up in the air, however.
Kohn said he hasn’t experienced any symptoms from the concussion since his headache wore off the day after the incident, but Gophers coach Doug Woog said the junior will still wear a hands-off “red cross” jersey in practice for the rest of the season.
And while Kraft has been skating without any problems, how well he’ll react to stress on his wrist during game action will determine how much playing time he sees against Denver.
“We don’t know if we can use him on a full-time or part-time basis,” Woog said. “It would be good to have him more, but he’ll probably just go on the power play and the penalty kill.”
Kohn, meanwhile, is anxious to regain his spot on the blue line.
“It’s hard to sit up there in the stands and watch them get their first sweep and go out to center ice and raise their sticks,” Kohn said. “I just wish I could have been out there with them.
“It’s been a long year, and that was a big thing for us.”
Minnesota will likely need to put together a few more sweeps if it hopes to jump up to fifth place and earn a home game in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Getting back a handful of players when the team is playing well makes a bigger difference than losing a few when the team is playing poorly, Woog said, but a deeper bench won’t be enough.
“We need to try to get back into some kind of rhythm,” Woog said. “We need to learn to be consistent and persistent. We’ve got a big hill, but we’ve got to start at the bottom and climb our way up.”