Sioux are another big test for defensemen

They haven’t been big-time scorers, but the three freshman have been solid.

Last year, Mike Vanelli, Alex Goligoski and Erik Johnson finished the season as Minnesota’s top three scoring defensemen on the men’s hockey team.

MEN’S HOCKEY PREVIEW

WHERE: Mariucci Arena
WHEN: 7:07, tonight and 7:07 p.m., Saturday
TV: Fox Sports Net North
RADIO: WCCO 830 AM (Fri.) / KTNF 950 AM/KUOM 100.7 FM and 106.5 FM (Sat.)

All-time record: 137-121-11

Earlier this year: After dropping the series opener 4-2, the Gophers battled back Saturday night winning 4-3 and avoiding the sweep. The series also marked Kyle Okposo’s last point for the Gophers.

Now, all three are gone, but their freshman replacements – Stu Bickel, Cade Fairchild and Kevin Wehrs – are shifting the focus back to protecting the net instead of attacking it.

The entire defensive squad will be put to the test this weekend as North Dakota, the top-scoring team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, comes to Mariucci Arena.

The two-game series begins at 7:07 p.m. Friday with a Saturday follow-up scheduled for the same time.

Coach Don Lucia knows his whole team will be tested; a struggling Minnesota offense will have as much trouble scoring as the defense will have stopping the Sioux.

“We know North Dakota’s style, and we have a lot of respect for their players and their team,” Lucia said. “It’s going to take great effort on our part.”

While Vanelli, Johnson and Goligoski were all known as offensive defensemen, this year’s freshman class of defensemen hasn’t frequented the score sheet often, but has been successful in keeping opponents off it as well.

MINNESOTA

(12-11-5 overall, 6-9-3 WCHA)
National Ranking: 18

Minnesota Stat
Minnesota comes into this weekend with only one win in its last six games, a 2-1 contest against Duluth. Add in the sweep over Wayne State and the team has recorded just three victories in the second half.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Freshman forward Mike Hoeffel: Hoeffel has quietly been making his way onto the score sheet all year, and he is now third on the team with six goals this year. He scored twice in his last game against the Sioux, and the Gophers could use that kind of outburst this weekend.
Junior forward Blake Wheeler: Minnesota’s top-contributor has tallied points in eight of the Gophers 10 games since Christmas.
Wheeler’s 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) are ninth most in the conference.

“I think they’ve done a really good job, especially on the defensive front,” Lucia said. “Obviously, they haven’t been able to fill in those shoes offensively, but I think defensively, they’ve exceeded what I thought they would be able to do this year.”

Bickel makes the most appearances on the scoreboard, leading the team in penalties with 24 for 56 minutes.

But there is a difference between being physical and being cheap, and Bickel is the former.

“That’s just the way I play and it’s the way I always will play. It’s just part of my game,” Bickel, who also has one goal and five assists this season, said. “It’s something we don’t have a lot of on this team, and I feel like bringing that to the table is a good addition for our team.”

Fairchild leads the trio with 10 points so far (two goals, eight assists), but his skills are more commonly called upon for

North Dakota

(16-8-1 overall, 13-7-0 WCHA)
National Ranking: 3

North Dakota Stat
The Sioux are the hottest team in the WCHA right now, and their seven straight wins are tied for longest active streak in the nation.
After dropping slightly in the rankings earlier this year, North Dakota is trying to work its way back up to No. 1 – where the team was predicted to finish this year.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Junior forwards T.J. Oshie and Ryan Duncan: These two line-mates are one of the WCHA’s deadliest duos. Both are part of a three-way tie for the sixth most points in the conference with 26 points.
Oshie leads the team in goals with 12 while Duncan, last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner, leads the team with 16 assists and trails his classmate by just two goals.
The juniors’ contributions are big reasons the Sioux lead the WCHA in scoring offense – the pair is responsible for over a quarter of the team’s goals this season.

special teams – where Bickel and Wehrs have recently joined him. “Our first job is to play defense, that’s what we are, we’ve established that,” Fairchild said. “At the same time, Minnesota has always had offensive defensemen and someone has to be there to fill that role.”

Fairchild is second among all Minnesota freshmen in points this year, trailing only forward Mike Hoeffel, and Lucia would like to see the Duluth native continue to produce.

“We need (Fairchild) to have a strong finish for us,” Lucia said, adding that the team needed the same from all of the freshmen.