Gophers set to open home era with Lucia

Sarah Mitchell

The men’s hockey season is young, but the Gophers have already shown signs that they’re an improved squad.
In their opener at Maine last weekend, the Gophers showed that, under the direction of new coach Don Lucia, they are skating with more energy in their legs — or at the very least a little more excitement.
After dropping two to the Bears, the team is eager to pound Mariucci’s boards.
“There’s a connectedness that hasn’t been there. It just makes for a better team and better leadership,” sophomore Jordan Leopold said.
But nobody is making excuses for Minnesota’s 0-2 start.
Defensive gaps were the spoilers against the Bears and enough to overcome a four-goal weekend from Gophers center Erik Westrum. Lucia said lack of communication among the young group could have been the problem.
“They’re kind of quiet back there,” Lucia said. “They don’t talk a lot. Communication is kind of important.”
Being vocal is key this weekend — both for fans and the team. The Sioux are no slouches, aiming for their fourth-consecutive WCHA regular season title. They are only the second team in the league’s 48-year history to have this chance.
But if Minnesota is going to get a win, it will have to do so with no scouting material to knock the Sioux off with. North Dakota has played in just two exhibition games this season.
“I look at it as another test to see where we’re at. We’re going to have to adjust as the game goes on,” Lucia said. “(The Sioux) have been so darn fast over the last few years, and that’s been a real matchup problem for everyone who’s played them.”
North Dakota dominated the Gophers in seasons past. Minnesota owns the series record (122-103-9), but is just 1-8-1 in its last 10 games against the Sioux. Last year, North Dakota defended its homefront, sweeping the Gophers 5-4 and 6-5, while defeating Minnesota at Mariucci Arena 5-3 and tying 4-4.
North Dakota has a new look this season, however. Only three of the team’s top-10 scorers from a year ago returned, including junior forward Jeff Panzer (21 goals, 26 assists, 47 points), junior forward Lee Goren (26-19-45) and senior forward Brad DeFauw (11-12-23).
The loss of forward Jason Blake (WCHA 1999 Player of the Year and first team All-America), defenseman Brad Williamson (WCHA 1999 Defensive Player of the Year and first team All-America), and forward Jay Panzer (second team All-America) has the Gophers concentrating on their own game, rather than the unknown Sioux.
“We want to make them worry about us, not us worry about them,” Leopold said. “So, if our game is at perfection, we feel we can beat anybody.”
And to sweep the Sioux there’s no better time or place to do it than at the season opener at Mariucci in front of fans hungry for success.
“We want to try to get the crowd back into the game,” Leopold said. “It’s nice to be out in the rink, winning games, raising your stick after a series to salute the fans and have them stick around for the end of the game. It’s a great feeling.”

Sarah Mitchell covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]