Stern test ahead for men’s hockey

Adam Fink

The planning has been three years in the making.

At the time, Don Lucia was entering his first year as Minnesota men’s hockey coach and was about to endure a 20-19-2 season.

New Hampshire coach Dick Umile was about to embark on a 23-9-6 campaign en route to the NCAA West Regional title.

The coaches decided to revive their schools’ rivalry, which dates back to the late 1970s but hasn’t added a new chapter since 1989.

“We thought it would make for a great series,” Umile said.

Little did they know, what would have been a mismatch in 1999 has become a marquee matchup in 2002.

Both the Gophers (1-0) and Wildcats (1-0) enter this weekends’ series in Durham ranked first and third in the nation, respectively, coming off easy victories and hungry to prove their elite status.

Minnesota dispatched Ohio State 7-2 while New Hampshire routed Vermont 10-0.

“This is as good a team as any we are going to play this season,” Lucia said. “They are a veteran team who won’t make many mistakes. We want to play against an outstanding opponent whether they are in our conference or not.”

The Hockey East conference is geographically distant from the WCHA, leaving style of play more of an unknown and making preparation difficult.

Watching tape has given the Gophers players a sense of how to prepare, but they won’t know exactly what to expect from the Wildcats until stepping on the Whittemore Center ice.

“Speed,” defenseman Paul Martin said, when asked his first impressions of New Hampshire. “They seem quick to the puck and they know how to score. They return what seems like their entire team intact.”

Actually, three of the Wildcats top four scorers return. Forwards Colin Hemingway (66 points), Sean Collins (45) and defenseman Lanny Gare (31) all scored more than 30 points during New Hampshire’s Frozen Four run a year ago.

The Wildcats view the series as a possible breakout game and a chance to showcase their capabilities to the nation.

“We want to beat the top teams in the country,” said Umile, now in his 13th year as the Wildcats’ head man. “This series gives us a chance to get some confidence, and it could become a statement game. Both teams have large expectations to fill.”

For Minnesota, this is its best chance in the next three weeks to validate its early season hype and live up to its national championship expectations.

Before facing Colorado College for a weekend series beginning Nov. 15, the Gophers will play three teams with a combined record of 42-66-5 last season.

The upcoming schedule gives the Gophers a chance to get off to a solid start in the standings, which makes this weekend even more important.

“We are still kind of jittery out there,” forward Matt Koalska said. “New Hampshire has a great team, but we can make things happen. We just have to play together as a team.”

How often the Gophers play the opponent is another matter.

Juggling the lineup

lucia said he will continue to juggle the lines for this weekend’s games.

The fourth-year coach expects to dress some of the players who didn’t compete last weekend and must also fill the void left by Grant Potulny’s injury. Lucia didn’t want to mention names until he made a final decision after arriving in Durham.

He did, however, say the front line of Thomas Vanek, Koalska and Barry Tallackson would remain the same, as would the third line of Mike Erickson, Gino Guyer and Dan Welch.

On defense, Martin and Judd Stevens are expected to be paired together, a tandem that dates back to last year.