Alaska trip is prime opportunity for men’s hockey to go above .500

Lou Raguse

After Wednesday’s practice, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team made the six-hour flight to Anchorage, Alaska, in preparation for the weekend series. Tonight’s and Saturday’s games, held three time zones west of Minnesota, will start at 10 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Despite possible jet lag, the Gophers (6-7-1, 3-6-1 WCHA) are looking to enjoy their team time together and, more importantly, come out of the series against the Seawolves (4-6-2, 1-5-2 WCHA) with a winning record for the first time this season.

“The important thing is that we’re fresh this weekend,” coach Don Lucia said. “We have to play with good tempo; we have to protect the puck and not turn it over; and we have to play sound defensively.”

Despite a long plane ride into a state that’s currently dark 20 hours per day, many players enjoy the Anchorage road trip. Being together from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday night creates some true team-building.

“When we’re at home, you’re with the guys at the rink; then you go home and you’re basically with your roommates and the guys in your classes,” sophomore P.J. Atherton said. “Now everybody is together the whole time, so it’s really great for a team.”

Forward Garrett Smaagaard agrees.

“While we’re there, the coaches are doing their own thing, and we really get to do things as a team,” he said. “And it’s nice because we’ve been successful up there as well.”

While the trip provides an opportunity for the team to grow, players realize in order to further their four-game winning streak, they must stay businesslike, get two wins and come home.

Senior captain Grant Potulny, who is making his fourth trip to Anchorage, hopes that in the process of winning, the Gophers will continue to find their identity.

“I think if you look on any team I’ve been on at Minnesota, we haven’t had our identity at Thanksgiving,” Potulny said. “I think with the way we’ve been playing right now, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, but we still have some hard work.”

Minnesota has experienced success against Alaska-Anchorage in the past, sweeping the Seawolves on the road last season and going unbeaten in the last nine meetings.

Tonight’s game is Lucia’s 650th as a head coach, and it comes against a familiar face.

Seawolves coach John Hill was an assistant at Minnesota from 1999-2001, helping build the 2002 championship team. His association with Lucia dates back even further, as Hill assisted him at Colorado College from 1995-99.

But being familiar with the Gophers’ personnel and knowing what they try to do on the ice is very different from stopping it.

“I know that we need to be aware of their power play, and certainly there are some players that we need to pay particularly close attention to,” Hill said. “But I really do believe that they are playing with a lot of confidence right now, and we are playing with our top two players out with

injury.”

Alaska-Anchorage forwards Ales Parez and Chris Fournier, two of the Seawolves’ top scorers, will not play this weekend, causing Hill to jumble his young lineup.

With seven freshmen and six sophomores in the lineup, the Seawolves are playing with an eye to the future. But this doesn’t mean Hill’s squad is going to lie down for the Gophers.

“We are preparing with the mindset that we are preparing to win,” Hill said. “Not preparing to weather a storm, but preparing to win, and it’s going to be quite a challenge for us.”