Minn. opens WCHA first round in Mankato

Brian Deutsch

Earlier this year, the Minnesota men’s hockey team may have cringed when the topic of special teams was brought up.

MEN’S HOCKEY PREVIEW

WHERE: Alltel Center, Mankato
WHEN: 7:07 p.m., Friday- Sunday
TV: Fox Sports Net North
RADIO: KTNF 950 AM KUOM 100.7 FM and 106.5 FM (Fri.-Sat.)/WCCO 830 AM (Sun.)
All-time record: Minnesota leads 25-2-5

Earlier this year: Minnesota picked up its only WCHA sweep of the season in a home series against the Mavericks. The Gophers scored nine goals in that November weekend – the most the team has scored in a conference series this season.

After scoring three power-play goals in their season-opening 4-3 win against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Gophers went 29 straight power-plays without a goal.

Minnesota broke that streak on Nov. 10 against Minnesota State – the Gophers opponent this weekend in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.

That night, Minnesota tallied a pair of power-play goals in Mankato to pick up its first conference win of the season – one that stopped the team’s worst start in program history.

But a lot has changed since then, according to Gophers coach Don Lucia.

“Their team’s completely different and we’re completely different,” Lucia said. “It’s almost like seeing them for the first time this season because it’s been so long.”

The Mavericks’ seven-game second-half winning streak was overshadowed by North Dakota’s 17-game unbeaten streak – the longest active streak in the country.

minnesota

(15-14-9 overall, 9-12-7 WCHA) Ranking: 15

Minnesota Stat
The Gophers have only dropped two games to Minnesota State in the two teams’ 32 game history – a 6-5 overtime loss in 1999-2000 and a 3-2 loss in 2002-2003. Only the second came while Minnesota was on the road.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Freshman goaltender Alex Kangas: Kangas has emerged as not only the Gophers top man in the crease, but also one of the best goalie’s in the conference. He’s third in the WCHA in goals against average (2.13) and fourth in save percentage (.923). He’ll get his first taste of college hockey playoffs this weekend.
Sophomore forward Jay Barriball: Barriball hasn’t had a spectacular follow-up to his freshman season, when the forward led the team with 43 points. But Barriball has actually been the Gophers’ best contributor on power-plays – he’s got nine points (two goals, seven assists) this season.

“They struggled when we played them earlier this year, and then they went on a run down the stretch and are playing their best hockey right now,” senior defenseman Derek Peltier said, as the Gophers prepared for their first road playoff series under Lucia.

“Ever since I was a freshman, we’ve been able to go into that barn and win, so you can take that away from it. It’s good to know that we can go in that arena and win anytime.”

Minnesota has turned part of its game around, too – closing out the regular season with only one loss in its final six contests.

Special teams also got better as the regular season wound down – something sophomore forward Tony Lucia believes is due to the team finally finding a way to score.

“Through the better part of the season, we were only getting one or two goals a night. We weren’t getting more than two ever,” Tony Lucia said. “Now we’re getting closer to four goals a game. I think part of that is because our confidence is up and part of that is because our power-play is better.”

minnesota state

(18-4-4 overall, 12-12-4 WCHA) Ranking: 10

Minnesota State stat
In the 10 years the Mavericks have been in the WCHA, the team has only had home-ice advantage twice. They swept Wisconsin five years ago and then took two straight from Alaska Anchorage in the 1999-2000 season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sophomore forward Trevor Bruess: The Holy Angels graduate leads the Mavericks’ with 28 points (eight goals, 20 assists). Last weekend, Bruess tallied a goal and two assists as Minnesota State split with Michigan Tech.
Junior forward Mick Berge: Berge is by far the Mavericks top scorer with 19 goals this season. The Oklahoma City native has nearly a fifth of Minnesota State’s 102 total goals this year

The Gophers scored at least one power-play goal – a team goal, according to Derek Peltier – in each of the last six games.

Minnesota will try to find similar success this weekend at Minnesota State – the WCHA’s worst penalty killing team (81.2).

“We know what’s at stake this weekend,” Peltier said. “If we win, we’ll move on to the Final Five and probably get that NCAA tournament bid. If we lose, our season will probably be over.”