Sweep by Denver has hockey team searching for answers

by David La

DENVER — Down 3-1 late in Saturday’s game with Denver, Minnesota coach Don Lucia pulled goaltender Adam Hauser to provide his team a 6 on 5 man advantage and a chance to get back in the game.
Hauser came off the ice with 2:24 remaining, waiting for his teammates to create havoc — then watching helplessly as the Pioneers Matt Weber scored an empty-net goal.
Even with the man advantage, it took the inept Gophers over a minute just to penetrate Denver’s zone. It was a performance indicative of a Minnesota offense which managed just one goal and went 0-for-12 on the power play for the weekend.
“Our skill guys are struggling with the puck right now as evidenced by our power play,” Lucia said. “They’re not moving the puck with any authority whatsoever.”
Other than a strong first period on Saturday, the Gophers (9-5-2) bogged down in the neutral zone and failed to attack the net, allowing the Pioneers (6-7-1) their first regular season sweep of Minnesota since the 1994-1995 season.
Denver dealt the Gophers a 4-0 shutout on Friday, a loss Minnesota captain Erik Westrum read in the faces of quiet teammates long before the first puck dropped.
Unable to tell if teammates were supremely confident or totally despondent, Westrum said he, “tried to get a few guys fired up. But I can’t look to them to play better when I’m not.”
The Gophers outshot the Pioneers 33-20 on Friday, but settled for a flurry of perimeter shots with little or no traffic in front of the net.
“I don’t know if guys were scared to go in front and get hit by a puck or take a cross check or two,” Westrum said. “But we’re not going to start scoring goals and winning games until we start playing aggressively in front of the net. No one has an ice bag on after today’s game and that’s a telling point of how hard some guys played.”
On Saturday, Minnesota jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Stuart Senden rebound goal. The Gophers controlled the game throughout the first period, asserting themselves in the slot and allowing Denver few chances to get out of its own zone.
Early in the second period, the Pioneers Bjorn Engstrom evened the score on a power-play goal which drastically shifted momentum.
“We didn’t respond well after they scored,” Lucia said. “It’s a sign that our team is a little fragile right now.”
Hard-charging in the opening period, Minnesota inexplicably reverted back to the sluggish style of play which produced zero goals on Friday.
After a 0-for-9 power-play showing on Friday, the Gophers squandered three additional power-play opportunities on Saturday.
Minnesota’s power play looked overwhelmed at times. On one occasion, Denver’s Kelly Popadynetz single-handedly kept the puck in the Gophers zone while a trio of Minnesota players jostled for the puck.
Over its last four games — all losses — Minnesota has scored four goals, its fewest in a four game span since 1952.
“I see guys like (former Gophers) Mr. Micheletti, Mr. Larson, coach Guentzel and coach Stauber and I’m almost ashamed to be wearing the `M’ today,” assistant captain Dylan Mills said Saturday.
The Gophers’ losses, coupled with two North Dakota wins, put Minnesota second in the WCHA behind the Fighting Sioux.
The Gophers play four non-conference games in December before resuming conference play Jan. 5 at Alaska-Anchorage.
“Its probably good that we don’t have any more conference games for a month,” Lucia said.
Westrum added: “Going into this break will give guys time to reflect on their game — what they’re doing well and what they’re not doing well.”
Judging by Minnesota’s recent performances, the latter may take some time.
David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]