Below .500, Gophers trying to look at positives as Wisconsin visits Mariucci

Minnesota is 6-10-4 in the WCHA and has a lot of ground to make up this season.

Positives have been hard to come by for the Minnesota men’s hockey team this season, but the Gophers will bring one attribute into this weekend’s series against Wisconsin – they rarely trail opponents.

Men’s hockey preview

WHERE: Mariucci Arena
WHEN: 7:07, tonight and Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network (Fri.) Fox Sports Net North (Sat.)
RADIO: WCCO 830 AM
All-time record: Minnesota leads 148-79-16

Earlier this year: Just more than a month ago, the Badgers edged Minnesota in a 3-1 battle Friday at the Kohl Center before the two teams skated to a 1-1 overtime tie the next night.

Despite a sub-.500 record, the Gophers are actually fourth in the country when it comes to time trailing opponents – falling behind on the scoreboard in just 386 of a possible 1,961 minutes this season.

Junior forward Blake Wheeler sees two sides to that statistic.

“You can take positives and negatives from that,” the Phoenix Coyotes draft-pick said.

The positive aspects according to Wheeler include the Gophers scoring first in more than two-thirds of their 32 games and maintaining a lead over opponents 80 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, the negatives are just as striking.

Minnesota leads the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in third-period goals allowed with 38 this season, seated in 10th place with just 21 goals scored in the final period of regulation.

“The third period is what has hurt us all year,” Wheeler said Wednesday.

Minnesota coach Don Lucia expanded on the Gophers’ struggles.

“We’ve played pretty hard lately, but it’s the inability to score that hurts us,” the ninth-year Gophers coach said. “It’s not like we aren’t competing with other teams.”

MINNESOTA

(12-13-7 overall, 6-11-5 WCHA) Ranking: Not ranked

Minnesota Stat
The Gophers have gone into overtime in six of their last nine games and sport a 1-3-5 record in that span. For the season, Minnesota is 0-3-7 in overtime games.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sophomore defenseman David Fischer: Fischer has quietly been climbing the ladder among Minnesota defenseman with 12 points (two goals, 10 assists). Trailing only junior R.J. Anderson, Fischer has already eclipsed his point total from last year, when he ended the season with five points. Freshman defenseman Stu Bickel: With a talented freshman class of Badgers forwards, the young Gophers defense will be charged with containing them. Bickel’s physical play style will play a big role this weekend.

Lucia later added that Minnesota actually outshoots its opponents in the third period, which further puzzles the matter.

For a team touted as a scoring machine in the preseason, the Gophers have struggled all year to light the lamp.

But Wheeler said the team isn’t as concerned about scoring as finding a way to win the remaining six games of the regular season.

“It doesn’t bother me that we aren’t scoring,” Wheeler said. “It bothers me when we play well and tie 1-1 or lose 2-1.”

Oddly enough, Wisconsin suffers a similar problem in a different fashion, according to Badgers coach Mike Eaves.

“In the first period, we’ve felt that we’ve played some really good hockey and haven’t scored,” Eaves said. “As a result, we find ourselves behind, and that’s just the scenario we’ve been with. We have great confidence in our ability not to panic and continue to play and do the things that we want, and have found ways to come back and get ties and/or victories.”

Wisconsin

(14-12-6 overall, 10-10-4 WCHA) Ranking: 10

Wisconsin Stat
Wisconsin hasn’t won a road game against the Gophers since the 2005-2006 season. That year, the Badgers swept Minnesota in three contests, including a 4-1 battle that knocked the Gophers out of the Final Five. Wisconsin went on to win the NCAA Championship that year.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Freshman forward Patrick Johnson: It must be in the blood. Johnson, whose father coaches the Badgers women’s hockey team and whose grandfather was Hall of Fame coach “Badger” Bob Johnson, tallied a goal and an assist in the teams’ 2-2 overtime tie last month.
Freshman forward Kyle Turris: Turris, who had two points in the Badgers 3-1 win over Minnesota earlier this year, is second among conference freshmen in points, with 29 to his name. The Phoenix Coyotes draft-pick has 11 goals and 18 assists in his first season with Wisconsin.

However, the two teams match-up this weekend is a big series for both of them.

Lucia stressed the importance of picking up two wins this weekend – something Minnesota has only done three times all season (once against a WCHA foe) – if the team hopes to have any chance of catching the fifth-place Badgers in the standings.