Crucial series ahead in Duluth

Lou Raguse

After playing its last six games on the Olympic-sized rink at Mariucci Arena, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team faces a different challenge this weekend.

After going 5-1 while watching teams come to Minneapolis and adjust to the roomier pond the Gophers call home, No. 4 Minnesota travels to Duluth to take on the No. 6 Bulldogs this weekend.

This time, Minnesota will have to adjust to the rink at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, a much smaller sheet of ice known to plague visiting teams.

The DECC’s ice measures 190 by 85 feet, which is 10 feet shorter than most rinks. In comparison, Mariucci measures 200 by 100 feet. The smaller DECC ice creates a smaller neutral zone to work with offensively.

“You can’t really go out thinking it’s going to be pass-pass-pass-score,” Minnesota defenseman Chris Harrington said. “It’s going to be one of those things where you dump (the puck) in and chase it.”

Fortunately for the Gophers, they have been able to practice in Ridder Arena this week to prepare for the series on a smaller surface.

And while the players realize it’s difficult to practice at game level, they hope the things they’ve worked on this week will ease the transition to the road arena.

“Hopefully when we get up there it won’t take as long to react to those different situations,” Harrington said. “We’re going to have less time with the puck.”

The games pose another rematch from an early-season series in which the Gophers were swept.

In the last three weeks, Minnesota avenged two earlier losses to Wisconsin by sweeping the Badgers at home, and split against North Dakota in an evenly matched series.

On Oct. 24 at Mariucci Arena, Minnesota-Duluth defeated the Gophers 4-3 in overtime and came back the next night with a 4-2 win.

That was also the weekend Keith Ballard suffered a knee injury and missed the next three series.

The Gophers are playing the best defense of their season thus far, and with Minnesota-Duluth also playing at the top of its game, Minnesota coach Don Lucia expects a fast-paced defensive battle.

“We’re practicing getting used to things happening in a hurry,” Lucia said. “We have to have good puck support this weekend both offensively and defensively.”

Minnesota-Duluth is one of the hottest teams in the country. The Bulldogs are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games and have climbed to a first-place tie with North Dakota atop the WCHA.

However, after its series with the Gophers, Minnesota-Duluth travels to Colorado College, and then finishes the regular season against North Dakota and Wisconsin. If the Gophers earn some league points in the Duluth series, it could add a little more spice to the already-interesting WCHA race.

They will get to do so with the return of leading scorer Thomas Vanek who has 18 goals and 17 assists.

Vanek sat out last weekend’s Bemidji series, and returns to the lineup in timely fashion – on the smaller rink, the Gophers need all the offense they have.

“You see what happens on our team when we get lines buzzing down low,” forward Jake Fleming said. “I don’t see (the small ice) being a negative; I see it as an advantage.”