Gophers holding sticks ‘a little too tight’

Minnesota is on a 0-30 power-play scoring drought and 0-4 in the conference.

by Brian Deutsch

The general assumption among the Minnesota men’s hockey team is that the Gophers are “holding the sticks a little too tight.”

Unfortunately, while coach Don Lucia is trying to get his players to relax their grips, the team is off to its worse conference start in program history.

Minnesota (4-4-0 overall, 0-4-0 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) finds itself dead last in the newest conference standings – a rare spot for the two-time defending conference champs.

The No. 14 Gophers are also ranked last in the WCHA in power-play conversion (3-for-40), penalty-killing (28-of-35) and total scoring (2.12 goals per game).

“The only way we can get ourselves out of this hole is to come in and work hard,” junior forward Blake Wheeler said. “Hopefully, the ship will get righted like that.”

Wheeler has been the team’s one consistent contributor so far, and his six points (four goals and two assists) only have him tied for 24th most in the conference.

The most disheartening trait for Minnesota is that the team can’t seem to find the back of the net no matter how they are playing.

Last Saturday against No. 7 Denver, the Gophers had numerous chances to end their slump, but bad luck and good defense on the part of the Pioneers kept the Gophers 0-for-30 conversion on the power play streak alive.

Senior defenseman Derek Peltier had a wide open net during a first-period power play, but his shot went well wide of the net.

Several times throughout the weekend, strong scoring chances were broken up only by sprawling saves from Denver senior goalie Peter Mannino.

“When you’re struggling to score goals, sometimes guys have a tendency to squeeze the stick,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “We’ve all been through it, and I think Minnesota is going through it right now.”

And if anyone would know about special teams’ slumps, it’s Gwozdecky and his Pioneers.

Coming into the Minnesota series last weekend, Denver was sporting a 1-for-31 conversion rate on the power play – bizarrely similar to Minnesota’s current 0-for-30 streak.

The Gophers could take a lesson from the team that swept them last weekend, which went 4-for-11 on the power play and scored a pair of short-handed goals.

“We just have to get back to basics and relax,” said senior forward Ben Gordon. “(We) almost have to completely forget about everything that has happened up to this point and just kind of start over.”

The common train of thought is that the next two weekends should give the Gophers a pristine opportunity to get their season back on track.

They have a home series this weekend against Minnesota State and then host Alaska-Anchorage the following weekend.

That stretch of four games will more than likely be Minnesota’s best shot at righting a slowly sinking ship.

After that, they close out the first half of the season with one of the conference’s toughest schedules.

The Gophers will play a single game against both the No. 2 Wolverines and the No. 4 Spartans on a Michigan road trip before heading back to Mariucci to host the current top-ranked team in the WCHA and No. 13 ranked Michigan Tech.

The last series before the break will bring Minnesota to Grand Forks to take on North Dakota, the No. 3 team in the nation.

“We don’t have the opportunity to trade, we don’t have the opportunity to call up anybody from the minors. I mean this is our team,” Lucia said. “The answers are within our locker room.”