So far, real good for young team

Ben Goessling

When center Gino Guyer considered all the possible scenarios for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team nine games into this season, he said he barely gave any thought to the possibility of the Gophers being 7-2-0.

The junior looked at Minnesota’s young roster, its lack of proven scorers and its rough opening schedule, and figured a winning record would be good enough.

“I thought we’d have our struggles to start the year,” Guyer said. “I would have been happy with being a couple games over .500. But if you’d told me we were going to be here, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Count Guyer, along with most of the hockey community, as those who are more than a little surprised at the Gophers’ fast start.

After being picked to finish fifth in the WCHA and facing defending national champion Denver, along with North Dakota and Wisconsin, in the season’s first month, Minnesota heads into its bye week sitting pretty.

The Gophers have fashioned 10 conference points with a 5-1-0 record that has them atop the WHCA standings.

The start is Minnesota’s best since its 2001-02 national championship season, when the Gophers ripped off a 13-game unbeaten streak to start the season.

But unlike that campaign, which included victories over Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State-Mankato, the third-ranked Gophers have come out of the gates against lofty competition this year.

The fast start also figures to benefit Minnesota down the stretch. The Gophers don’t play No. 5 North Dakota again and after next weekend, will be done with Denver.

Minnesota visits fourth-ranked Colorado College on Dec. 3-4, which figures to be the Gophers’ last dangerous road trip until a Feb. 4-5 visit to Wisconsin.

And aside from a date with 2004 Frozen Four qualifier Minnesota-Duluth at the end of January, the Gophers can breathe easy come the new year.

“If we can just hang in there until Christmas, we’ll be OK,” coach Don Lucia said. “We’ll be done with Denver, done with North Dakota. If we can play .500 the rest of the year, we’ll have home ice (in the first round of the playoffs).”

The Gophers, however, are doing a lot more than hanging in there. They are now starting to wonder if they’re capable of much more than anyone thought.

“I think the sky’s the limit with this group,” Guyer said. “The big thing is we’re keeping our goals-against average down. Kellen (Briggs) has really elevated his game, and you’re going to win a lot of games when you give up less than two goals.”

Briggs, who won the job as an unknown freshman last year, has fashioned a .936 save percentage and a 1.75 goals-against average that ranks eighth in the country.

“It’s just maturing and adjusting to the speed of college hockey,” Briggs said. “Last year, that was the biggest thing I had to get used to, and now I know how fast the game is.”

Added defenseman and captain Judd Stevens: “There have been a few times where, if we make a mistake, Kellen’s been right there. He lost some weight over the summer, and he’s quicker. He’s in great shape.”

The Gophers spent the first part of this week lifting weights and skated in four-player groups with coaches Wednesday.

Because of an NCAA rule that limits the number of full-team practices coaches can conduct during the season, Minnesota will repeat its Wednesday routine today before captain’s practices Friday and Saturday.

And while the Gophers couldn’t be happier with their strong start, Stevens plans to run a tight ship at the scrimmages this weekend.

“Last year, a lot of guys were too loose and too complacent,” Stevens said. “This does a lot for our confidence, but we’re not going to go through the motions this year.”

Hagemo skates

Defenseman Nate Hagemo, who missed last weekend’s series with a neck injury, skated Wednesday. His status for the Denver series has not been determined.