Gophers get taste of future in win over Under-18 Team

Minnesota’s current players beat a few future Gophers 7-5 Saturday at Mariucci.

by Ben Goessling

Well, it seems like Minnesota’s men’s hockey team’s future is in good hands.

As for the present, that’s still a little shaky. But as trivial as Minnesota’s 7-5 win over the U.S. National Under-18 Team at Mariucci Arena on Saturday was, Minnesota at least straightened a few things out.

The Gophers still displayed many of the problems stemming from a 1-6-1 record in their last eight regular season games at home. They gave up five goals in just 18 shots and failed to score a power-play goal on seven tries.

But Minnesota isn’t in much of a position to quibble with success right now, and Saturday at least brought some of it back to Mariucci Arena.

“It was a good game for us. They’re a high-end team, and I thought we played pretty well,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “An exhibition isn’t the same mentality, but we took the game over.”

The main focus of Saturday’s game, of course, was Phil Kessel, the U.S. team’s flashy forward who has Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Boston University all salivating over his services.

Kessel didn’t disappoint, either, posting two goals and two assists to the delight of 9,914 fans – many of whom held up signs imploring the Verona, Wis., native to join the Gophers next fall.

Besides Kessel, the U.S. team has four players who are committed to Minnesota in the next two years, and several of them put on a show almost as good as Kessel’s.

Peter Mueller, a 2006-07 commit, posted three assists, and Ryan Stoa, who will be a freshman next fall, scored the Under-18 Team’s last goal.

Goaltender Jeff Frazee – also scheduled to arrive on campus in fall – made 30 saves in the loss, riding a physical first period from defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson (another 2006-07 commit) to a 2-1 lead at the intermission.

After Andy Sertich put Minnesota up 1-0 at 2:20 of the opening frame, the Under-18 Team responded with goals from Kessel and Jason Lawrence in a span of 57 seconds.

Minnesota reeled off three unanswered goals in the second period, only to surrender a two-goal lead just 23 seconds into the third period when Kessel banged home an impressive slap shot from the left circle.

But the Gophers scored twice in the next two minutes, and after Stoa’s goal cut Minnesota’s lead to one, Gino Guyer added an empty-net goal to seal the win.

“It was important for us to come out here and regain some confidence,” Guyer said. “We’re back to being scoring threats offensively. We gave up some odd-man rushes, but guys moved the puck around pretty well.”

Lucia said he wasn’t as concerned about the Gophers’ defensive lapses because starting goaltender Kellen Briggs and defenseman Judd Stevens both got the night off.

“It’s not a WCHA game, but all in all, one game this weekend was perfect,” he said. “We gave up a number of goals on rushes, and they’re going to score when you give them chances.”

The Gophers’ schedule returns to normal as they prepare for a home-and-home series with St. Cloud State next weekend.

And while the future looks bright for the Gophers, they left the weekend feeling a little better about their current situation, too.

“We’ve been hounding down on our systems, and hopefully this will set a trend,” defenseman Nate Hagemo said. “You’re going to have letdowns with a young team, but I have a lot of confidence in us.”

Howe could return

Lucia said forward Mike Howe, who has missed three weeks with an undisclosed medical condition, practiced Friday and said he hopes to be in the lineup next weekend.