Gophers’ recent first-half pains on the line vs. Mavericks

Minnesota stumbled early last season, starting the WCHA schedule 1-7-1.

by Ben Goessling

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team’s home opener this weekend won’t have the fanfare of the last two years.

There won’t be any national championship banners hoisted to the rafters, and instead of a creampuff opponent like Alabama-Huntsville, the Gophers have a much-needed chance on their plate for four points in the WCHA before the schedule gets hairy.

Minnesota plays host to Minnesota State-Mankato today and Saturday at 7 p.m. – a series sandwiched between a visit to third-ranked North Dakota and a two-game clash with No. 5 Wisconsin next weekend.

And if playing two of their biggest rivals twice in three weeks isn’t enough, the Gophers begin another tough stretch after a bye week Nov. 12-13. Minnesota makes road trips to Denver (Nov. 19-20) and Colorado College (Dec. 3-4), and in between faces Michigan and Michigan State at the College Hockey Showcase at Mariucci Arena.

“We have a very difficult first half of the season,” coach Don Lucia said. “These two home series (against Minnesota State-Mankato and Wisconsin) are a real critical four-game stretch for us.”

This weekend’s visit from struggling Minnesota State-Mankato, then, stands as the lone safe harbor in an early-season gauntlet. The Gophers need to run to establish themselves.

Minnesota’s WCHA fate could be determined in the next month, and the Gophers know what they’re getting this weekend.

“We didn’t get a whole lot of looks at them last season, but it doesn’t really matter,” goaltender Kellen Briggs said. “A lot of their kids are from Minnesota and probably wished they could have played here. I’m sure they’ll be looking to ruin our party.”

The Mavericks return four of their top five scorers and each of their top three goaltenders from a team that went 10-24-5 and finished ninth in the WCHA last year.

Minnesota swept the only meeting between the two teams last year, winning 6-0 and 10-3. But the Mavericks did open this season with a 2-2 tie against North Dakota.

While it’s a stretch to say this Minnesota State-Mankato team is capable of a run similar to the Mavericks’ 2002 squad – which finished tied for a surprising second in the WCHA – Lucia said he expects the opponent to be much-improved.

“They’ve got some young guys playing pretty good. They’ve always played well up here,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of ties, and they’ve beat us a few times.”

And this weekend is doubly dangerous for the Gophers, who have begun slowly in the WCHA for the last several years.

Minnesota stumbled to a 1-7-1 start in the conference last year and began the 2002-03 WCHA campaign 2-2-2.

In Lucia’s five seasons, the Gophers have reached the College Hockey Showcase – usually held the last weekend of November – with a winning record in the WCHA only twice.

So, to avoid putting themselves in another early hole, the Gophers said they know they can’t kick back in this year’s home opener.

“We looked a lot more comfortable last (weekend), but we need to get better each game,” forward Ryan Potulny said. “If we do that, hopefully things will take care of themselves.”