Gophers, Huskies have lot in common

by Michael Rand

The implications of Friday night’s game between Minnesota and St. Cloud State in the WCHA Final Five are clear.
The Gophers are trying to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament by winning the league playoff title. The Huskies — straight out of coach Craig Dahl’s mouth — know they need at least one win this weekend to squeeze into the national tournament.
Adding the teams’ intensifying rivalry to the mix creates even more intrigue.
“Obviously every game in the playoffs is huge, but there’s extra incentive against St. Cloud,” defenseman Mike Crowley said. “It’s for bragging rights in Minnesota.”
The mere mention of “Minnesota vs. St. Cloud” is enough for some players.
“You don’t have to say much more than that,” Gophers junior Casey Hankinson said.
Although both teams are aware of the impact this year’s Final Five at the St. Paul Civic Center will have, they are also pledging this: Once the puck drops, nothing matters but the game at hand.
When all of the hype is stripped away from the game, what’s left behind is still interesting. Minnesota and St. Cloud State split both of their regular season series, and each team won a game at home and on the road. In addition, both teams have played well lately. The Gophers are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games while the Huskies are 7-2-1.
St. Cloud State (23-11-4 overall, 18-10-4 in the WCHA) relies on a quartet of high-scoring forwards to lead its offensive attack. Matt Cullen (44 points), Dave Paradise and Sacha Molin (42), and Mark Parrish (41) make the Huskies’ top lines dangerous.
After those four, however, the next highest scorer is freshman Mike Rucinski with 24 points. The team’s off-and-on production from its lower lines is a weakness.
That lack of scoring has been offset by an improved defensive unit. Although league coaches perceived defense to be the Huskies’ main weakness in the preseason, the team has been adequate at the position this year.
St. Cloud State allowed 132 goals in WCHA play last year — the second-highest figure in the league. But this season, the Huskies have allowed just 105 goals.
“They’re a good team. That’s why they finished as high as they did in the league,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “Their forwards were never a question. But their defense and goalie (Brian Leitza) have played well.”
Despite the improved effort, St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said defense is one of his main areas of concern this weekend.
For Minnesota, the theme is simple: Keep building momentum. The Gophers limped into post-season play last season by losing six of their final eight regular season games. This season, however, the team went undefeated in its last five regular season games.
“Last season we had the 19-game unbeaten streak, but then we went 2-6 down the stretch,” Hankinson said. “This is what you’re remembered for, how you play at the end of the season.”
Several Gophers players — Ryan Kraft, Wyatt Smith, Mike Crowley and Brian LaFleur in particular — are on hot streaks right now. Others like Reggie Berg and Erik Rasmussen have shown signs that they could be big factors in the playoffs, as well.
Woog said he thinks special teams and goaltending will tell the story this weekend. Other than that, the game plan is pretty basic.
“Just go over the boards and get ’em, guys,” Woog said.
Colorado College 5, Denver 2
Colorado College snapped Denver’s seven-game winning streak by breaking a 2-2 tie and coasting for a first-round victory in the WCHA playoffs.
The win means the Tigers will play North Dakota in the semifinals at 2:05 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Center.