Minnesota hockey faces huge test against Sioux

by David La

Beaten-up in a physical series with Wisconsin, then raised-up to a No. 1 ranking in the polls, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team must now get revved-up for a series with defending national champion North Dakota.
The Gophers ran like a chain saw through an October schedule of lumbering teams, going 5-0-1 and averaging 5.5 goals per game.
“Up until Wisconsin, we were supposed to win the games we did,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “Wisconsin was the first real test. Everybody probably expected a split. I don’t think anyone expected a sweep.”
With a resounding sweep of defending WCHA champion Wisconsin and jumping to the top of the national polls in November, the Gophers wasted no time making a statement.
And a torrid November schedule provides Minnesota all the A-games needed to chart its continued rise or abrupt fall. After the Fighting Sioux, the Gophers play a trio of 2000 NCAA tournament teams: St. Cloud State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Since Minnesota can’t control the past or future schedule, a No. 1 ranking is appropriate — for now.
“They deserve the number one ranking,” North Dakota coach Dean Blais said. “When they beat Wisconsin it showed everyone that they have a little bit more than people thought. They’ve got all the ingredients. They have plenty of balance and a star at each position.”
Minnesota’s armory is loaded with weapons. Senior center Erik Westrum is tied for third in the WCHA with 16 points, with teammates Jordan Leopold (defense) and Johnny Pohl (center) also in the top-10 in scoring.
The Gophers also boast three players among the top-10 in freshmen scoring, and goaltender Adam Hauser is back to form as the third stingiest stopper in the league.
While the Gophers are impressing some, they’re making prophets of others.
Before his team played Minnesota to a series split two weeks ago, Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous sung the Gophers praises as the best team coming into the season.
“Out of respect for North Dakota, you automatically put the national champion first until somebody beats them,” Talafous said. “But I think if coaches would have been honest, they would have put Minnesota ahead of them based on talent.”
With wins in the bank and a neon “We’re No. 1” sign hanging over their heads, any progress the Gophers make going forward will be a testament to their fortitude.
Staying hungry shouldn’t be a problem. Despite a 20-19-2 record last year, Minnesota’s senior class has two losing seasons and no NCAA tournament appearances among them.
“We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘How hard is it going to be for us to stay at the top,’ Hauser said. “Because everyone is gunning for us now. That’s our motivation.”
Of course, getting out of Ralph Engelstad Arena with a win is motivation enough. The Gophers are 1-10-1 in their last 12 visits, and stroll into town this weekend with a crown on their heads and a bulls-eye on their chests.
“Our kids get fired up when they see that Minnesota jersey and will get more fired up when they see Minnesota is number one,” Blais said. “Its not posted yet, but it will be.”
Hauser honored
Minnesota goaltender Adam Hauser earned WCHA defensive player of the week honors for his solid performance in last weekend’s sweep of Wisconsin.
“It isn’t a huge thing,” Hauser said of the award. “I don’t go into the week and say, `You know what, I want defensive player of the week this week.’ I just wanted to get two wins.”
The junior stopper compiled his fifth career shutout in the Gophers 4-0 win Friday, then turned away 36 of 38 shots Saturday night.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]