Michigan Tech comes to Mariucci

Ben Goessling

P.J. Atherton knew it was going to happen; in fact, most of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team did.

It’s just that they would like to think the end is in sight.

While the Gophers’ transition from a veteran-laden squad to one including 10 freshmen has been about as seamless as they could hope, Minnesota is still working out kinks with its defensive corps.

The Gophers spent a good portion of the week ironing out technique issues with their blueliners after surrendering 77 shots and seven goals in two games to Minnesota State-Mankato last weekend.

Minnesota (18-7-0, 11-5-0 WCHA) still swept the series, but the focus was on defense as the team prepared for a home series against Michigan Tech.

They play the Huskies (3-17-1, 2-14-0) today and Saturday at 7:07 p.m. at Mariucci Arena.

“It comes with being young,” Atherton said of the lapses. “It takes time. You have to work with each other and get used to what the other guy is going to do.”

And in part, that might explain the problem. For various reasons, the Gophers simply haven’t had a chance to establish three consistent defensive pairsings.

Freshman Nate Hagemo, perhaps the team’s most physical defenseman and best backchecker, missed three games in November with a neck injury and is back on the bench with a shoulder injury that has kept him out for the Gophers’ last three contests.

Atherton missed the first two months of the season after being declared academically ineligible, and Alex Goligoski and Hagemo both played in the World Junior Championships over winter break, consequently missing two series.

The shuffling has sent forward Andy Sertich to the blueline on several occasions this year and at least mitigates some of coach Don Lucia’s concerns.

“We have not really had our lineup since (the) St. Cloud (State series Dec. 10-11),” Lucia said. “We’re not to the point where we have all our top players back yet.”

But the inconsistency has been there most of the year.

After Lucia expressed his disappointment with his young defensemen in a split with Denver in November, the Gophers turned around and held Michigan and Michigan State to a combined one goal in the College Hockey Showcase.

Despite not having Hagemo and Goligoski against Boston University on Jan. 2-3, the Gophers still held the Terriers to three goals in two games.

But Minnesota turned around and gave up eight in two losses to Colorado College the next weekend.

Lucia and assistant coach Mike Guentzel preached defense for about the first hour of an intense practice Wednesday, and with a rejuvenated Michigan Tech squad visiting Mariucci Arena this weekend, the series is more crucial than it looks on paper.

Michigan Tech thumped Notre Dame 6-2 on Tuesday night after splitting with Denver last weekend. Michigan Tech could have swept the national champions in their own building, losing 1-0 Saturday after a 3-0 win Friday.

And after giving up an average of 4.72 goals per game in their first 18 contests, the Huskies are riding goaltender Cam Ellsworth and a suddenly stingy defense.

The Gophers, in turn, hope theirs is back to normal.

“Games like (last Friday’s 9-6 win) are going to happen,” goalie Kellen Briggs said. “Hopefully it’s out of our system.”