Men’s hockey aiming for strong showing in postseason

by Adam Fink

Junior Matt Koalska suggested to captain Grant Potulny earlier this week that Minnesota’s men’s hockey team should have a players’ meeting to discuss what it takes to win in the playoffs.

Koalska and Potulny – two central figures during last season’s run to the NCAA title – are readying for their third WCHA playoffs but their first as the Gophers’ veteran leaders.

Heading into tonight’s opener of the conference playoffs’ first round against Michigan Tech, Minnesota is feeling confident and has made great strides since the beginning of the year. Now the Gophers (20-8-9, 15-6-7 WCHA) are preparing to continue their recent success into the postseason.

“It’s been a fast year,” Koalska said. “Now it’s time to make sure everyone is on the same page. We need everyone contributing.”

Whether it’s been extra energy in practice or added excitement to everyone’s demeanor, the intensity for the playoffs was set this week.

Gophers coach Don Lucia has noticed the players are getting antsy for the postseason.

“We are looking forward to it,” Lucia said. “There is more focus for it. You just have to look at last time we played Michigan Tech to realize it is going to be a battle and we have to be ready.”

While Minnesota took the season series 3-0-1, the Gophers only outscored the Huskies 14-10 and trailed in three of the games before mounting a comeback.

But the last time they faced each other was Nov. 23 – since then both teams have improved.

“They didn’t have Potulny or (Barry) Tallackson,” Huskies coach Mike Sertich said. “The level of play has increased for them.”

In the past 15 games, Minnesota is 9-2-4 and has jumped to the sixth-ranked team in the nation. Michigan Tech (10-22-4, 7-18-3), meanwhile, has been near the bottom of the standings all season.

But the Huskies did beat fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth last weekend in a game Sertich didn’t see as an upset.

“I thought we were just as good as they were,” Sertich said.

While defeating Michigan Tech will be a challenge, advancing to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul is still the next goal for Minnesota. In the process, the Gophers want to improve in three areas.

The list includes a faster start to games, limiting the shots allowed near the end of each period and staying mentally strong throughout the contest.

“We know anything can happen,” alternate captain Paul Martin said. “Guys are getting excited for the playoffs. (But) if we lose, we could be done.”

“We just have to maintain our composure,” Koalska said. “The next three to four weeks are going to be very intense.”

Playoff lineup

Lucia has maintained all season long that come playoff time the Gophers needed a consistant lineup.

And it appears Lucia has solidified his lines.

Travis Weber will start in goal Friday night. Joey Martin will continue to start on defense, where rookie P.J. Atherton won’t play again unless there is an injury.

Senior Nick Anthony, who has struggled this season but has a history of success in the playoffs, will start Friday. Lucia said Anthony’s playoff experience and eight career points in the WCHA first round gives him an edge on Garrett Smaagaard, whose lineup spot Anthony takes.

Scanning the dial

The Gophers will be heard on a different radio station for each game this weekend.

Friday’s game will be heard on WMNN 1330 AM. Saturday’s will be broadcast on KCCO 950 AM. If the series extends to a third game, the series finale will be on WCCO 830 AM.

All games will be televised on Fox Sports Net.