Gophers look to move up in WCHA

by Josh Linehan

If the situation seems familiar to Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia, you’ll have to forgive him.
A late-season matchup between Colorado College (15-12-2, 11-7-2 WCHA) and Minnesota (14-12-2, 10-8-2) for crucial postseason positioning is on tap for the weekend and Lucia is justifiably confident.
After all, he has gone 5-2-1 during February matchups between the two clubs in the past four years.
There’s just one problem: He amassed that record while coaching for Colorado College.
Now, Lucia is attempting to tailor one of his patented late-season runs in Minnesota. And with a bottle-necked top half of the WCHA — only three points separate third from seventh — the Gophers control their own destiny.
When asked if he liked the position his team is in, Lucia was succinct.
“I like it better than where we were the first half of the season,” Lucia said. “Now we’re in position. The question is, what can we do with it?”
The Gophers will know within a month just how good they are. Three of Minnesota’s next four series are against teams ahead of them in the WCHA standings.
The team’s unofficial goal is to finish the season with 20 wins, a number which would get them serious NCAA tournament consideration.
“We have to come hard every night the rest of the way. We’ll take it a weekend at a time, but we’d love to get 20 wins,” junior forward Aaron Miskovich said.
The stretch run should prove if the Gophers are as good as some have suggested, given their incredibly tough schedule. At this time of year, however, it isn’t good enough to play the nation’s top teams hard. The Gophers have to win.
“They understand they have to work hard and they can beat anyone in the country. But if we don’t skate hard, and make mistakes, anyone can beat us,” Lucia said.
Minnesota has proved that, losing to Minnesota State in overtime one week after knocking off North Dakota in Grand Forks. The loss to the Mavericks was a wake-up call for many on the team.
“We felt we should have won that game. We needed the points. Fortunately, we went up to Duluth and got four, but we need the same kind of attitude this weekend,” Junior forward Erik Westrum said.
The attitude Westrum was speaking of is the workman-like one which allowed Minnesota to play well enough to win against Duluth — a team who threw everything it had at the Gophers last weekend.
Minnesota players and coaches attribute the team’s jelling attitude to improved confidence and trust in one another.
“The biggest thing has been a better sense of camaraderie,” Westrum said. “The new guys have been getting better and all four lines are capable of adapting to game situations.”
Lucia is hoping the growing trust his players have in each other to perform their assignments will result in fewer of the mental mistakes which have plagued the team recently.
“We’re becoming more of a team, which is important, because there is a much slimmer margin for error against better teams. Our whole has to become more than the sum of its parts,” Lucia said.
A sweep of third-place Colorado College this weekend would vault Minnesota as high as fourth place in the league, with fifth-place Alaska visiting North Dakota.
The Tigers played well last weekend, taking three of four points from the Seawolves in Anchorage. And Colorado is certain to be extra ready for a game against their former coach.

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]