Denvers late surge makes series at Mariucci a fight for first

The Pioneers lead Minnesota by one point in the WCHA standings.

Chris Lempesis

Junior forward Danny Irmen said this of Denver before Minnesotaís menís hockey teamís first series with the Pioneers in mid-November:

ìThey tend to kind of start slower, and theyíre always hot at the end of the year. So the Denver you see early in the season will be different than you see late in the season.”

Quite the prognosticator, that Danny Irmen.

After starting the season at a subpar 5-6-2, the Pioneers now are playing like the two-time defending national champions they are. Denver has posted a 13-4-0 record since the start of December, including seven wins in a row.

The just-as-hot Gophers ó 12-3-1 since early December and 5-0-1 since mid-January ó look to cool the Pioneers off this weekend.

The teams will meet for a two-game Western Collegiate Hockey Association series at Mariucci Arena. Game times are set for 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Coach Don Lucia pointed to more balanced scoring, improved team health and a strong core of veterans as the reasons why he thinks seventh-ranked Denver (18-10-2, 15-5-2 WCHA, first in the WCHA with 32 points) has been on such an upswing.

ìI think that with those veterans that have been through it, that sense of urgency is there,” Lucia said. ìI saw one of (Denver coach George Gwozdeckyís) quotes, ëThe veterans have decided to play,í and that makes a big difference when they see the end of the year not too far away.”

Some of those veterans who have been powering Denver include senior forward Gabe Gauthier (12-19-31) and junior defenseman Matt Carle (11-35-46), the WCHAís leading scorer.

Shutting Carle down will be crucial if top-ranked Minnesota (19-6-5, 14-5-3 WCHA, second in the WCHA with 31 points) is to have success this weekend.

Carle ó considered the front-runner for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award ó is strong at both ends of the rink.

ìYou gotta know where Matt Carle is at all times,” senior defenseman P.J. Atherton said.

ìHeís dangerous and we gotta try to get in front of his shots and kind of deny him the puck.”

Carle is especially lethal on the power play. In fact, he is second only to Colorado Collegeís Marty Sertich in power-play points in the WCHA.

But Denverís power play, as a whole, has been strong lately and is coming off an 8-for-16 showing from last weekendís series with Minnesota State.

Specialties, taking care of the Pioneersí surging power play in particular, will be crucial for the Gophers as well, Lucia said.

ìDenverís been hotter than Ö really hot on their power-play and our penalty killing has to be very good,” Lucia said.

ìDenver, 17 of their 18 wins, theyíve got power-play goals.”

And while shutting the power play down will be key, senior defenseman Chris Harrington said its just one of many goals.

Thatís because although the series is a meeting of the top two teams in the conference ó which may meet later down the road ó everyoneís playing playoff-style hockey this late in the season. Even Denver, as much as it didnít look like it would be back in November.

ìYouíre going to have to do that little extra thing out there every shift to make sure that you put your team in the best situation possible,” Harrington said.

Irmen and Chucko back

A big question heading into the series this weekend is

whether the pair of injured Minnesota forwards, junior Danny Irmen and sophomore Kris Chucko, will play. Both missed last weekendís series at Michigan Tech with separated shoulders suffered Jan. 28 at Wisconsin.

Coach Don Lucia was not at practice Thursday ó he was on a recruiting trip ó but when reached by phone, Lucia answered simply:

ìYeah, theyíre playing.”

Lucia said the decision was made Thursday.