Gophers rediscovering

Matthew Cross

At first glance, the hitting and machismo that abound in hockey might seem unnecessary or even flagrant — the madness of men in oversized shorts.
Fans groan when a player takes a particularly vicious hit, sharing the agony of the player lying face-down on the ice.
Yet it’s that same lunacy that attracts many fans to the rink in the first place.
This season, more than in recent years, the Gophers men’s hockey team is adhering to a more physical style of play, not for the fans’ sake, but because its players and coaches say it helps win games.
Gophers senior defenseman Bill Kohn said the team swept Wisconsin last weekend because it set the pace of the games by playing physically.
Against No. 1 North Dakota this weekend, the Gophers were outscored 6-3 when they did not play tough. When they were aggressive, particularly in the second and third periods of Friday’s game, Minnesota took a 4-3 advantage.
The main difference between those periods was the Gophers’ ferocity. Minnesota players knocked around Sioux players and separated them from the puck, which created breakaways and odd-man rushes.
When Minnesota executes that game plan, Gophers coach Doug Woog said, it usually finds success.
“There is a very direct correlation there,” he said. “Unless we play physical … we’re going to be in trouble.”
North Dakota was able to exploit Minnesota’s inconsistency and inexperience to escape with a win and a tie this weekend. Woog said the younger players, though stronger and more physical, still need to work on their play-making abilities.
“They are a little bigger,” he said, “but they have less skill too.”
While Woog admitted to gearing his teams in the past to a more speed-oriented and finesse game, a physical style was exactly what he had in mind when he began recruiting players for this year’s team.
A player on this year’s team is, on average, about an inch taller and five pounds heavier than a player on the previous five Gophers teams. And there is room for growth on each of their bodies.
Woog said the idea is to be more aggressive along the boards and knock the opponent off the puck.
The players like that idea.
“Through physical play is how I get my scoring chances,” said senior forward Mike Anderson. “That was my role coming in here, and that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get in there and work somebody. I love to hit.”
Both players and coaches admit their new style is geared toward being more effective on the road, where the Gophers have typically gotten kicked around in the smaller rinks at places like Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota. Those rinks are 15 feet skinnier, as opposed to the Olympic-size ice sheet at Mariucci Arena.
“When you go on the road it’s very physical,” Kohn said. “You have to be able to stand up for yourself. You have to have that mentality because it’s 20 guys versus the whole arena.”
Kohn added it’s always been his style to hit and smother his opponents. And at home against a rival like the Sioux, physical play not only makes the fans cheer, but the players love it, too.
“This was the most intense series of the year by far,” junior Dave Spehar said. “It was a fun series to play.”