Gophers take on Mavericks in home-and-home series

by Mark Remme

Two similar streaks are on the line for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team as it faces Minnesota State-Mankato in a home-and-home series this weekend.

The top-ranked Gophers host the Mavericks at Mariucci Arena tonight in Western Collegiate Hockey Association action, then travel to Mankato on Saturday for the tail-end of the two-game set. Both games are set for 7:07 p.m.

Minnesota (12-1-2 overall, 6-0-2 WCHA) is riding a nation-best 14-game unbeaten streak that reached 12-0-2 last weekend.

Coincidentally, the Gophers are 12-0-2 in their last 14 games against Minnesota State since losing 3-2 on Nov. 8, 2002.

But it’s not that particular history lesson that concerns coach Don Lucia. More so, it’s the letdown that sometimes follows playing well against College Hockey Showcase foes Michigan State and Michigan.

“Last year we came out of that weekend winning at Michigan and tying at Michigan State and then laid a big egg against Wisconsin here the next weekend,” he said. “We just have to make sure we continue to work and have a good week Monday through Thursday.”

Lucia said though the Mavericks (3-9-1, 2-6-2) aren’t near the top of the conference standings, there is no margin for letdown this weekend – something easily done after an emotional two-game stretch with top-10 teams like the Spartans and Wolverines.

“Some people might look at their record and say, ‘Oh, you should win this game easy,’ but there are no easy games (in the WCHA),” Lucia said.

Last season’s 4-3 upset loss to Holy Cross in the NCAA Tournament was a testament to that theory, and sophomore forward Ryan Stoa said it opened the eyes of the returning roster members.

He said the locker room has a whole new mindset, and taking teams lightly is out of the question.

“There’s a different attitude around here – we go into games knowing there’s always a chance we could lose,” Stoa said. “But our fate is in our own hands and if we play hard we’re going to be tough to beat.”

Much of the focus for Minnesota’s defense – a crew that shut down a powerful Michigan offense 8-2 last Saturday – will be containing Minnesota State senior forward Travis Morin.

Morin, a Brooklyn Park native, is the Mavericks’ active leading scorer against the Gophers, and has netted seven goals and 10 assists on the year.

“He’s their best player,” Lucia said. “He’s rangy – he’s got good size and hands. He’s not only a scorer but he’s a great passer and that’s why he’s one of the top players in our league.”

Gophers senior defenseman Mike Vannelli said Morin is a traditional “power forward” type of player who can get to the net, and his hockey sense makes him a complete player.

“I’ve played against Travis ever since junior hockey,” Vannelli said. “He’s a scorer and he’s been able to keep scoring the past few years.

“He’s their go-to guy this year, and he’s a guy we’ll have to key on,” he said.

But keeping Morin and Minnesota State’s offense in check might rest on intangibles like the passion to win against an in-state foe.

Sophomore center Blake Wheeler said this weekend’s success will hinge on matching the intensity of a traditional intra-state rivalry game.

“Friday night at home we’ve got to come out with a lot of fire and match their intensity,” Wheeler said. “They’re an in-state rival – we know they’re going to come out hard at us and we’ve got to match them.”