Gophers can gain ground Friday

With a win at Denver on Friday night, Minnesota can clinch WCHA home ice.

Lou Raguse

After being swept by Minnesota-Duluth, coach Don Lucia commented on the Bulldogs’ enviable position – being able to control their own destiny in the WCHA.

But by sweeping Alaska-Anchorage a week later, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team put itself in a similar position.

Though the league title is out of reach for the Gophers, who currently stand at fifth place, they finish the regular season against Denver and St. Cloud State. Currently, the Pioneers are biting at the Gophers’ heels in sixth place, while the Huskies are only a point ahead of Minnesota in fourth.

“Getting four points against Anchorage was extremely important to us,” said Lucia, the Gophers’ fifth-year head coach. “If we win on Friday (against Denver), that assures us of home ice.”

Minnesota is finally playing with the benefit of its full lineup, with Grant Potulny and Thomas Vanek back from injuries.

In some situations against Alaska-Anchorage, Lucia used a power-play unit that included Potulny, Vanek, Troy Riddle, Matt Koalska and Keith Ballard. Fans were excited to see that much offense on the ice at one time, but Lucia said he hasn’t decided how much he will use those players together against Denver.

MacNaughton clincher?

Many of the nation’s hockey eyes will be on this weekend’s matchup of top WCHA teams Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota.

A sweep over the Sioux would clinch the WCHA title for the Bulldogs, and three points would guarantee them at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the regular season champion.

Minnesota-Duluth is the hottest team in college hockey, currently on a 14-game unbeaten streak. The Bulldogs came from behind to beat Colorado College 5-3 last Saturday, led by Marco Peluso’s three power-play goals.

“I think we just have to play him on Saturdays,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin joked of Peluso, who scored two power-play goals against the Gophers on the previous Saturday.

The Sioux are responsible for the Bulldogs’ last two losses, sweeping Minnesota-Duluth at home Dec. 12-13.

To stop the Bulldogs in their tracks, North Dakota coach Dean Blais hopes to win the power-play battle.

“We can’t take any undisciplined penalties,” Blais said. “The team that capitalizes on the outnumbered situations will be successful.”

The Bulldogs haven’t won a WCHA title since 1993.

Players of the week

North Dakota forward Brady Murray earned WCHA offensive player of the week honors for scoring five points in the road sweep of Minnesota State-Mankato.

Murray scored two goals including the game-winner Friday. Fellow freshman teammate Erik Fabian shared rookie of the week honors with Denver defenseman Matt Carle.

Defensive player of the week went to Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Tim Hambly, who helped the Bulldogs hold Colorado College to five goals in the series.