Men’s hockey still in last place after split

by Aaron Kirscht

Few things are as satisfying as spending a nippy January evening in an easy chair, immersed in a good book and the warmth of a nearby fire.
Just make sure the broadcast of the Gophers men’s hockey game isn’t playing in the background. It has a way of bringing the shivers.
With their feet to the fire against Denver over the weekend, Minnesota again looked out of sorts — earning a series split against their fellow bottom-feeders, the final score in both games 5-2 — and continues to search for answers to its season so far gone awry.
The Gophers have been ice cold for the better part of the season, and the only thing worth reading is the WCHA standings, which have Minnesota in last place.
“I’m not going to criticize my players,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “I’ll stay with them. But I was not happy with the effort we gave. The performance we put on (Friday) was not one I could stand behind, and that hasn’t been the case all season.”
Denver pounced on a lazy effort by Minnesota in the opening period on Friday, a start Woog said he neither “anticipated, desired or expected.”
Things turned for the better on Saturday. The Gophers — minus captains Casey Hankinson, who suffered a hip pointer the night before, and Ryan Kraft, his broken hand still not healed — played with pride and rode the play of back-up goaltender Erik Day to a much needed, good-to-see-you-again win.
But with one weekend down and seven to go in Minnesota’s drive for five (a fifth place or higher finish in the league will earn a home game in the first round of the playoffs), the Gophers weren’t able to make up any ground in what Woog described last week as the “big climb.”
Minnesota-Duluth, which swept then-WCHA-leading St. Cloud State over the weekend, is up next. With a sweep of Michigan Tech, North Dakota took over sole possession of first place.
“We’ve been talking about getting ready for the second half,” said junior Mike Anderson, who had two goals and two assists over the weekend, “and then we come out with a lackluster effort in the first period on Friday. We’re not supposed to make guarantees, but I guarantee you we’ll come out ready to play next Friday.”
The Gophers — especially Day in goal — did look more prepared on Saturday. The Pioneers peppered Day with shots in the opening minutes, all of which were turned back. He held Denver to one goal in more than 59 minutes and earned his second win in three starts.
“I felt good,” Day said. “I was ready for it. The couple of games I got in over break helped me out a little bit. Now it’s not so much trying to get my confidence in there as it is getting the chance to play a little more.”
He may get that opportunity. Senior stalwart Steve DeBus was unimpressive on Friday, allowing a pair of relatively soft goals early in the game — including one on Denver’s first shot — and putting the Gophers in a hole from which they couldn’t escape. Minnesota did tie the game at 2-2, but the Pioneers responded with the eventual game-winner less than a minute later.
On Saturday, Day put together arguably the best performance by a Gophers goaltender so far this season, stopping 22 of 24 shots, under must-win circumstances. The score would have been much closer if not for a pair of empty-net goals by Minnesota in the final minute.
“If I had to project,” Woog said, trying to downplay any goalie controversy, “I’d say DeBus would play one night and Day — or another goalie — would play another night. But that can change, too.”
Hankinson and Kraft should be ready to play, as well. During his first shift on Friday, Hankinson was checked awkwardly into the boards, causing the hip pointer and forcing him out for the rest of the game. The injury is more irritating than debilitating, Hankinson said, and just needs some rest.
Woog expected Kraft to play this weekend, but the range of motion in his left hand was still limited, enough so that he couldn’t grip a stick. And the screws that were in place to help the broken bone heal were removed on Friday because they were causing irritation under the skin.

SCORING SUMMARIES

FRIDAY’S GAME
Denver 2 0 3 — 5
Gophers 1 0 1 — 2
FIRST PERIOD:
DU Murphy (Popadynetz, Rycroft), 4:23. DU — Bjork (Veres, Kidd), 6:26. Minn — Smith (Spehar, Abrahamson), 8:31.
SECOND PERIOD:
No scoring.
THIRD PERIOD:
Minn — Berg (Kohn, Anderson), PPG 3:20. DU — Rycroft (Popadynetz), 4:01. DU — Ritson (unassisted), 16:03. DU — Bjork (unassisted), ENG 18:38.

SATURDAY’S GAME
Denver 0 1 1 — 2
Gophers 1 1 3 — 5
FIRST PERIOD:
Minn — Anderson (Trebil), 17:33.
SECOND PERIOD:
DU — Morgan (Patterson, Popadynetz), 4:35. Minn — Senden (unassisted), 17:59.
THIRD PERIOD:
Minn — Smith (Anderson, Westrum), 2:20. DU — Bjork (Comrie, Stauss), 19:18. Minn — Berg (Trebil), ENG 19:25. Minn — Anderson (Berg, Lyons), ENG 19:52.