First line struggling to pull team out of lengthening slump

The Gophers’ first line has scored just three points in the team’s last two series.

Ben Goessling

Danny Irmen doesn’t want to think about it, while Ryan Potulny has no shortage of theories.

But if Minnesota’s men’s hockey team is to permanently pull itself out of its January slump, both players said, they know their scoring droughts need to end immediately.

After starting the year with 11- and 13-game scoring streaks, respectively, Irmen and Potulny have tailed off, combining for just two points in Minnesota’s last four games. Freshman Kris Chucko scored two goals in a Jan. 15 win over Minnesota State-Mankato but has only had one goal since, giving Minnesota’s first line three points in its last two weekends.

“We know that, when the coaches talk about picking up the offense, Danny and I need to step forward and pull our weight,” Potulny said.

The sophomore center listed the biggest reason for the slump as a departure from the systems the Gophers executed so well during a 13-2 run that started at the end of October.

And the statistics seem to bear that out. Of the six shots Minnesota attempted in the third period of Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth, only one was from the low slot. The rest were low-percentage attempts from the point or the faceoff circles – mostly products of desperate rushes into the zone that left no chance for a trailer to put back a rebound.

The Gophers, by comparison, took six of their 12 shots from the slot during the third period of a 3-2 win over the Badgers on Nov. 5 – a game in which Minnesota scored twice in the frame to win.

“We have to work much harder now to get open than we did early this season,” Irmen said. “We’ve been working this week on going hard to the net and looking for a rebound. That’s what you have to do.”

That’s about all Irmen offered for reasons behind the slump, however. He said concentrating on the struggles makes it harder for him to end the drought.

“We’ve had a bad couple weeks, but once you worry about it, that’s when it gets longer,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but you’ve got to work with it.”

Minnesota has been tinkering with its line combinations this week, and freshman Ben Gordon skated with Irmen and Potulny on Tuesday – reuniting a combination that produced three points in the first period of a 5-1 win over Michigan in the College Hockey Showcase.

Garrett Smaagaard, who has been on the fourth line all season, skated with Gino Guyer and Chucko (Potulny and Irmen’s usual linemate) on the second line. Barry Tallackson took Smaagaard’s place on the fourth line with Jake Fleming and Jerrid Reinholz.

Assistant coach Bob Motzko said Minnesota hasn’t settled on any lines for this weekend’s series at Wisconsin. But he said the changes, at least in practice, were to “get a spark going.”

“Right now, we’re trying to get some excitement up, but they’re going to come out of it,” Motzko said. “Early in the season, Ryan Potulny was blocking shots, he was backchecking hard, he was winning faceoffs. It goes back to doing those things that put you on the offensive side of the play.”

Potulny struck a more philosophical tone when he dove into the reasons behind the slump. He said the Gophers simply need to rely on one another again.

“One guy skating into the zone trying to take on the (defense) isn’t going to cut it,” he said. “It was working for us when we didn’t care who scored and we didn’t have any superstars. That’s when we were winning.

“It bugs us – not playing well. But when the chips are down, you look to your friends and family to pick you up, and this team is family to me. We’ve got to start playing that way.”