Gophers struggle to play complete series

Minnesota’s players and coaches are starting to make an issue of their youth.

Ben Goessling

There is something about Minnesota-Duluth that has made it the perfect foil for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

Last season, when the Gophers were picked by many to ride a loaded, senior-heavy team to a third-straight national championship, it was the Bulldogs’ scrappy group that took five of six from the Gophers, including a 3-1 win in the NCAA Midwest Regional final.

This season, Minnesota-Duluth, with 11 seniors, was picked to win the WCHA, while Minnesota and its 10 freshmen was predicted to finish fifth.

In November, when Minnesota went 5-1 and earned the nation’s No. 1 ranking while Minnesota-Duluth lost four of six, that theory looked to be about as reliable as the front page of The National Enquirer.

But if preseason predictions do nothing when it comes to asserting a team’s playoff mettle, November wins aren’t worth much more, and it looks again as if Minnesota-Duluth might be the more playoff-ready of the WCHA’s two most maddeningly inconsistent teams.

“I think they found their team. That’s as good as I’ve seen a team play all year,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said after the Bulldogs’ 3-2 win Saturday. “They’ve got 11 seniors. Our young guys can do it one night, but it gets more difficult the second night.”

That realization is the one that seems to be slowly casting a pall over the Gophers’ season.

Yes, Lucia has made a habit of resurrecting his team from January slumps for long postseason runs the last three years. But those squads were full of battle-tested seniors who could ride out the rigors of the WCHA.

On Saturday, in a game Lucia called “playoff caliber,” Minnesota was consistently beat to loose pucks and couldn’t find any space to skate.

The Gophers shot just six times in the third period, and of those half-dozen attempts, only one was from the slot.

“That’s as good a 60 minutes as we’ve played in a long time,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “Last weekend, we played afraid to lose. This weekend, we didn’t play that way.”

Minnesota visits Wisconsin next weekend in what figures to be another emotional, playoff-type series between two rivals that could play out very differently than when Minnesota swept Wisconsin in November at Mariucci Arena.

The Gophers need a sweep to revive any chance of a top-two finish in the conference, and while the Badgers’ 19-6-1 mark has been inflated somewhat by a soft early schedule, the Gophers haven’t put together two strong games in a weekend since December.

This weekend, after the Gophers turned in one of their most physical and inspired games of the season Friday, they simply couldn’t match the intensity Saturday.

“Maybe some of those hits (Friday) take their toll the next day,” Lucia said. “When you play that physical one night and you’re young, it makes it difficult the next night.”

Minnesota-Duluth, warts and all, might be more capable at this point of finishing out a series than Minnesota.

And in salvaging their own cause this weekend, the Bulldogs again exposed a potentially fatal flaw in the Gophers.

“Some of their guys are six years removed from high school,” Minnesota forward Evan Kaufmann said. “We’ve got six or seven guys who are a year out of high school and one who should still be in high school. That probably helped them when it was rough in the third period.”