No. 1 Sioux in town for crucial series

Lou Raguse

The Minnesota men’s hockey team’s weekly media day gave the Mariucci Arena corridor a circus-like atmosphere Wednesday.

Besides the four or five reporters usually waiting outside the locker room, several television sports personnel and more than a dozen newspaper, magazine and Web writers waited to question various Gophers.

“Well, Vikings season must be over,” coach Don Lucia joked when he was approached by the first camera crew.

Sophomore forward Thomas Vanek poked his head out the door periodically to see if the buzz had settled down.

It didn’t.

But that’s what happens when North Dakota comes to town to continue one of college hockey’s greatest rivalries. And it doesn’t hurt that the teams are currently the two hottest in the nation.

No. 5 Minnesota is on a roll, going unbeaten in its last eight games. That streak is bettered only by the Sioux, who have spent the last 11 weeks ranked first in the nation and haven’t lost in their last 13 games.

A couple of months can make quite a difference.

After the two teams met in Grand Forks, N.D., on Nov. 7-8, the Gophers took the long bus ride home shaken, humbled and swept.

Coming to Minneapolis, the Sioux can expect to see a different Gophers team than the one that allowed 12 goals in the last two-game series between the schools.

Defensemen Keith Ballard and Chris Harrington – who were both forced to watch the games on television back home with knee injuries – are back in the lineup at full strength.

That addition, along with the emergence of freshman Kellen Briggs as a premiere WCHA goaltender, will factor into Minnesota’s plans to stop the Sioux’s top-ranked offense.

“We’re not going to win if we give up four goals a game, I can guarantee you that,” Lucia said. “We have to hold them to two or three a night and take our chances from there.”

Besides the obvious defensive advantage in having the team’s top two blue liners in the lineup, Ballard and Harrington have factored into Minnesota’s goal output as well.

In the team’s current eight-game winning streak, Ballard and Harrington, along with four other teammates, have notched 10-plus points.

Sioux coach Dean Blais is aware of Minnesota’s improvements but quick to point out his own team’s success.

“We are as good, if not better now than the last time we played,” Blais said. “We’re better at little things.”

Blais said the team that capitalizes on scoring opportunities will prevail this weekend because when great teams face off, scoring opportunities are fewer and farther in between.

During their recent run, the Gophers have clawed their way to fifth in the WCHA with 17 points – seven behind the league-leading Sioux.

“It’s going to be a battle, like the Colorado College series,” forward Matt Koalska said. “It’ll be nice to play North Dakota in our own barn.”

Lucia nears milestone

With a win this weekend, Lucia will earn his 400th career coaching victory.

When asked of the milestone, he swatted it aside, saying, “Number nine and 10 in the league are the wins I want.”