Gophers’ No. 1 mettle to be put to the test at Colorado College

Ben Goessling

Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia’s lobbying failed, and the Gophers, not weekend opponent Colorado College, are the top-ranked team in the country.

But if it’s any consolation to Lucia, who didn’t want the added pressure that goes with being No. 1, the Gophers might not have the spot for long.

“It was inevitable (we’d be No. 1 after sweeping Michigan and Michigan State last weekend). We knew it was going to happen,” Lucia said. “Hey, I know we’re not going to have it every week, and we might not have it come Monday.”

Minnesota (10-3-0, 6-2-0 WCHA) plays the Tigers at 8:37 p.m. Friday and 8:07 p.m. Saturday at World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Lucia has given several teams – most recently, Michigan – the distinction of possibly being the best team the Gophers have faced all year.

But this series, the last in a seven-week gauntlet that included four teams ranked in the top five and the defending national champions, stands out as one of Minnesota’s toughest tests.

Colorado College, like Minnesota, is riding a hot goaltender and a talented group of forwards to the top of the WCHA standings. The third-ranked Tigers have won six of their last eight and are 10-2-0 overall, including a 4-2-0 mark in the conference.

The series might not be as tough as it looks on paper – the Gophers won both games at World Arena last season, and the Tigers lost eight times at home in 2003-04 and have only three wins over ranked teams.

But Colorado College did whip Boston 7-3 last weekend and the Tigers boast former all-WCHA goalie Curtis McElhinney.

The senior is 7-0-0 this season and is fourth in the nation with a 1.57 goals-against average. And while this weekend’s series pits two skilled teams on what forward Tyler Hirsch calls the biggest ice sheet in the WCHA other than Mariucci Arena, the Gophers aren’t expecting to score much this weekend.

“We can’t count on scoring five a night,” center Gino Guyer said. “Our goal on the road is not to give up any goals in the first period and get the lead early.”

Lucia placed much of the onus for the weekend on the Gophers defense, which left goaltender Kellen Briggs out in the cold several times in a split at Denver two weeks ago.

But the coach expects Minnesota’s young blueliners to be fresher this time around.

“I think two weeks ago, we as coaches could have done some things better in getting them ready. They were tired,” Lucia said. “We might have pushed them a little too hard. We were coming out of a bye week, and it’s hard to replicate games in those situations.”

Briggs, who will make his second trip back to his hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo., after giving up one goal in two wins there last year, is certainly capable of matching McElhinney, save-for-save.

But, nevertheless, the Gophers aren’t expecting to come out of the weekend unscathed.

“We don’t worry that much about the ranking,” forward Jake Fleming said. “You look at the other teams that have had it – Duluth, Boston College, Michigan – and they haven’t kept it for long. We just have to go out and play our game.”

Tallackson out

Forward Barry Tallackson, who suffered a high ankle sprain in practice the day before the Denver series two weeks ago, will miss this weekend’s series and could be out until the Holiday Classic on Dec. 22-23.

Briggs honored

Briggs, who already received the WCHA co-defensive player of the week award for his performance against Michigan and Michigan State last weekend, was named the U.S. College Hockey Online/ITECH defensive player of the week Wednesday.