Minnesota begins conference action

The Gophers are in the midst of a 10-game home winning streak.

C.J. Spang

Armed with a talented freshman class and a four-game win streak, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team begins its battle for a second straight MacNaughton Cup tonight.

The Gophers open Western Collegiate Hockey Association play with a pair of games against Colorado College. Both today’s and Saturday’s contests will be played at Mariucci Arena starting at 7:07 p.m.

Minnesota (4-1-0 overall, 0-0-0 WCHA) comes in a winner of four straight games with sweeps over Wayne State and Ohio State.

Freshman forward Jay Barriball has seen his team improve since its season-opening loss to Maine but said the Gophers still have things to work on.

“I think we’re getting better every weekend,” he said. “We still have things we can work on, but we’re getting better.”

While Minnesota comes in a hot streak, the Tigers were swept at home by New Hampshire last weekend, including a 7-2 pummeling Saturday.

Senior goaltender Matt Zaba gave up six goals before giving way to sophomore Drew O’Connell, who gave up just one goal.

O’Connell is 2-0-0 with a 1.20 goals-against average and .950 save percentage and could get the starting nod this weekend.

As for the rest of the Tigers, Gophers junior defenseman Alex Goligoski said they look a lot like Minnesota.

“They’re young. They’re a lot like us,” he said. “They lost some good players, but they’re always good.”

Colorado College lost more than just good players, as its top four scorers from a year ago left for the NHL. Brett Sterling, Marty Sertich, Joey Crabb and Brian Salcido combined for 188 points last season, nearly 51 percent of the Tigers’ total scoring.

But Colorado College hasn’t been without offense this season as junior forward Scott McCulloch is tied for second in the country with seven goals in six games, five of which have come on the power play.

The Gophers were in a similar boat to begin the season after losing their top three scorers – Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen and Phil Kessel – to the NHL.

But Barriball and senior forward Tyler Hirsch, have stepped up to fill the scoring void, notching eight points apiece to lead Minnesota.

So far this season, 17 different players have notched a point while 11 different players have scored a goal for the Gophers.

Coach Don Lucia said Minnesota’s play has exceeded his expectations so far, but he will find out more in conference play.

And as for whether the first weekend of conference play is important in setting a tone for the season, Lucia said it’s not.

“There’s no big weekends in October, let’s put it that way,” he said. “We want to perform. We want to get our guys playing well and develop that consistency from night to night.”