Gophers poised for big series

Michael Rand

It is sometimes hard to tell what athletes like more — using cliches or downplaying big games.
You just scored 46 points, how does it feel? “I’m just happy I could help the team get a W’.”
It’s the Super Bowl. That must put some added pressure on the team? “I really haven’t noticed the hype. We’re just trying to stay focused.”
The hockey series this weekend between the first-place Gophers and second-place North Dakota offered players a chance to polish both skills. Surprisingly, there were few takers.
“This is by far our biggest weekend of the season,” Gophers senior Dan Hendrickson said. “A sweep won’t lock up the league title, but it would put us in a very good position.”
Well, there it is.
In the royal rumble of a WCHA race this season, there have been few opportunities for teams to distance themselves from the pack. This weekend’s showdown, in Grand Forks, N.D., is one of those rare chances.
As it stands right now, the top seven teams are separated by just seven points. But with three of Minnesota’s four series after this weekend coming at home, the Gophers, with a sweep, could produce enough separation to make themselves strong favorites to win the WCHA title.
If contenders Colorado College and St. Cloud State split their series this weekend — a definite possibility — and the Gophers sweep, they will be at least three points ahead of every other team in the league.
“We’re not looking to tie. We’re not looking for a split,” said Gophers co-captain Nick Checco. “We just want to win.”
That, of course, is easier said than done.
North Dakota led the WCHA for most of the season before surrendering the lead last weekend. The Sioux boast six of the top 15 scorers in the league, led by sophomore winger Dave Hoogsteen’s 14 goals and 15 assists. UND has scored 99 goals, the most in the WCHA.
Although their offense has been spectacular on a consistent basis, the Sioux’s goaltending has been off and on. UND’s fate in many games rests on the shoulders of their goaltenders. If they’re hot, the Sioux might be the best team in the country. If they’re not, North Dakota is very beatable.
In last weekend’s series against Colorado College, for example, freshman Aaron Schweitzer made 36 saves in a 3-0 win. The following night, he and senior Toby Kvalevog combined to allow eight goals in a blowout loss.
The same was also true when Minnesota and North Dakota met earlier this season at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers won Friday night’s low-scoring affair 3-2 before exploding for a season-high 10 goals in the series finale.
Hendrickson said getting off to a fast start is critical if Minnesota is going to be successful this weekend. All 6,067 green and white seats at Ralph Engelstad Arena will be full. Crowd noise and a small ice sheet are two factors that the Gophers haven’t been able to overcome in the recent past.
“They deserve credit for the past couple of years,” Hendrickson said. “We have to come in and take the crowd out of it. We just can’t go into a game tentative.”
Hendrickson and Checco have only been on the winning end one time in their six career games at UND, a fact both players know all too well. Last year, Minnesota’s 19-game unbeaten streak ended with an 8-2 whipping at North Dakota.
“I’ve only won one game up there, and that was my freshman year,” Checco said in a frustrated tone. “We just have to go in there with a new attitude.”
Hendrickson added, “We just have to go in there ready to give an A’ effort.”
Whoops. That sounded like a cliche.
Notes: Junior Mike Crowley needs just one point this weekend to tie Travis Richards for second on the Gophers all-time list for career points by a defenseman.