Gophers struggling to keep pace in WCHA without Friday wins

Saturday wins have helped Minnesota stay in a race for third.

Max Sanders

As the Gophers menâÄôs hockey team enters its final weekend series of the regular seasonâÄôs first half, a team picked to finish fourth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings now sits eighth, with more questions than answers heading into the break. With an overall record of 6-9-1, Minnesota is only ahead of Alaska-Anchorage and this weekendâÄôs opponent, Michigan Tech, for last in the WCHA standings . Head coach Don LuciaâÄôs squad has struggled all year on the offensive end, failing to sustain any continuous offensive attack. The statistics are indicative of a lack of scoring rarely seen in the programâÄôs illustrious history. Minnesota has already been shut out four times, including back-to-back 3-0 losses at the hands of Denver. The fourth shutout, in a 6-0 loss to Michigan two weeks ago, was the worst of LuciaâÄôs 11-year career at the helm and tied the program record for shutouts in a season which was last set during the 1955-56 season. The Gophers have managed just 31 goals during WCHA play, which is eighth-worst among the 10 conference teams. For Lucia, the key to turning the teamâÄôs success around hinges entirely on putting pucks in the net. âÄúYou have to be able to score some goals; weâÄôre not scoring,âÄù Lucia said after last FridayâÄôs loss to Minnesota State-Mankato. âÄúLook at our lineup, goal totals; theyâÄôre not where they need to be.âÄù The Gophers leading scorer during conference play is Tony Lucia , who with nine points is currently tied for 25th among all WCHA point-getters. Tony Lucia and Patrick White each have four goals during conference play and are the only Minnesota representatives in the top 25 in that category, where they currently sit tied for 24th . Equally disheartening for Don Lucia is his teamâÄôs struggles at home. The Gophers are just 3-6 at Mariucci Arena, and Lucia attributes that lack of scoring as a contributing factor to the sub-par home record. âÄúWeâÄôre not scoring to create energy, so the fans canâÄôt get into it, and our guys donâÄôt seem to create that energy,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúYou canâÄôt win if you donâÄôt score.âÄù In series-opening games, Minnesota simply isnâÄôt getting the job done. The Gophers are 1-6 on Friday night games and have scored just 11 goals in the seven games. After last FridayâÄôs 3-1 loss to the Mavericks, Tony Lucia hinted problems in the locker room may be carrying over to the teamâÄôs performance on the ice. âÄúWe just need to make sure our morals are where they need to be, and make sure that weâÄôre playing for all the right reasons, and thatâÄôs for the âÄòMâÄô on the front of our sweater,âÄù Tony Lucia said after the loss. âÄúSometimes, you forget about the tradition and the history of this program, and thatâÄôs up there in the rafters.âÄù The saving grace thus far for Minnesota has been how they have responded on Saturdays. The Gophers are 4-2-1 in Saturday night contests, and the ability to bounce back is barely keeping Minnesota on the brink of contention. While currently eighth in conference standings, the Gophers are still in the thick of the WCHA conference race. Denver is the conference leader with 18 points, but Minnesota is still just six points away from third place, which is currently occupied by three teams (Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin). âÄúThereâÄôs still a lot of time,âÄù Don Lucia said. âÄúIf we can just string together a few weekends, then we can move up. In order to do that, you have to play well two nights, not one.âÄù Despite all of the struggles, there are signs the tide could be starting to change. The Gophers received encouraging signs from their offense in a 6-2 thrashing of Minnesota State-Mankato on Saturday, when three players scored their first goals of the season, including two by freshman Josh Birkholz . Lucia knows for this team to be successful they must have games like Saturday, where they have multiple people scoring. âÄúWeâÄôre the type of team where I donâÄôt know if weâÄôre going to be able to rely on one or two guys to score every night,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe have to have different guys contribute every night for us to be successful this year.âÄù This weekend, Lucia will be looking for his team to do something they have done just once this year: Play a full weekend âÄî not just Saturday âÄî of winning hockey. âÄúI think the heightened sense of urgency is to play well for six periods, and thatâÄôs something we havenâÄôt done in a while,âÄù Don Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôre not a good enough team to win without that [effort].âÄù