Gophers at full strength just in time for No. 1 Tigers

Adam Fink

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team has been on the winning end of nine of its first 18 WCHA conference games this season.

Coach Don Lucia will take those results, considering the many injuries and the overall youth of the Gophers (14-6-7, 9-4-5 WCHA).

But Minnesota’s fourth-year coach is quick to point out last year’s NCAA championship squad had the exact same number of conference wins at this point one season ago.

That squad went on to lose only three more games en route to the national title.

“That team had played together all season,” Lucia said. “And then it all came together; they hit their stride and got on a roll.”

Starting with this weekend’s series at top-ranked Colorado College, Lucia isn’t sure the 2002-03 Gophers can match last year’s late season surge.

But one thing is certain: returning to full strength is a great place to start.

No. 8 Minnesota hasn’t rounded out a healthy roster since the opening minutes of opening night in October. The team has lost 54 man-games to injuries this season.

Matt Koalska is the final player to return from injury. The first-line center has been out since Jan. 11 recovering from hernia surgery.

Evidence of 26 healthy Gophers skaters was visible at practice this week.

There were five practice lines, the energy level was the highest in recent weeks and, most importantly, nobody was wearing a medical jersey.

“Everyone is finding their niche,” said senior Matt DeMarchi, one of only two Gophers to make the trip to Colorado Springs the last time Minnesota traveled there three years ago. “It was great to see all the guys out there. We just need some time to get used to it now.”

By this time in a season, most coaches have settled on four lines. Lucia, however, hasn’t been afforded that luxury.

As of Wednesday, Lucia was still debating on a first line.

“I am just mixing and matching right now,” Lucia said. “I hope to find a combination that works well and can produce.”

Lucia will need every ounce of production he can muster.

The Tigers (21-2-5, 14-1-5) are fresh off a sweep of third-ranked North Dakota and feature an explosive offensive arsenal in forwards Peter Sejna (57 points) and Noah Clarke (46).

In addition, the team is riding a 10-game unbeaten streak.

But Colorado College coach Scott Owens is more worried about the Gophers offense.

“We don’t know what to expect from them,” the Tigers fourth-year coach said. “They are as big a mystery to us as they probably are to

themselves.”

One thing Owens isn’t worried about is a let-down from his team – he said if any other team were traveling to the World Arena, he would expect a disappointment.

“If we can take three or four points, I think we are in the driver’s seat for the (conference) title,” he said.

Lucia will settle for any points this weekend.

The former Tigers coach (1995-1999) hopes his team will continue the momentum built last weekend with a sweep of Alaska-Anchorage.

But Lucia is prepared for anything in the two-game series beginning Friday night.

“We are behind schedule,” Lucia said. “But we have the talent and leadership to catch up. This series will force us to come together quickly if we want to earn points.”