Gophers deal with uncertainties

The team is trying to fix problems without knowing who will play this weekend.

Ben Goessling

With the status of junior forward Tyler Hirsch still in limbo, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team is doing its best to conduct business as usual before the NCAA Tournament starts Saturday.

The team met for approximately 10 minutes before practice Tuesday, and an announcement on Hirsch – who has been absent since an emotional outburst after Friday’s loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five – should come in the next two days, possibly as early as today.

The forward’s return still appears to be a decent possibility.

But for now, the Gophers are patching things together without him.

Hirsch’s absence might be most noticeable on the power play, in which the Gophers are also working without defenseman Alex Goligoski and struggled without both players in Saturday’s loss to North Dakota.

“We lost the specialty (teams) battle in both games last weekend, and we lost the games,” coach Don Lucia said. “By midweek, we should have a better idea of where we’re at.”

While the absence of Hirsch, the team’s leading scorer, could sting the Gophers in their West Regional semifinal game with Maine on Saturday, the team has at least solved part of the problem with the return of forward Mike Howe.

Howe missed four weeks in January and February after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – a disease that causes chronic inflammation in the joints and usually affects people in their 40s.

Since his return, he has scored five points in seven games, including two against North Dakota.

“(The disease) started in my wrists, and it spread through my whole body,” he said. “It even hurt before games and got so bad I had to check it out.”

But now that he has on medication for the condition, last year’s United States Hockey League player of the year is back on top of his game.

Howe is skating on the team’s top line with Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen – the two forwards he’ll also see on the power play.

“We’ve kind of developed that chemistry now,” Howe said. “Last weekend, it started to click.”

How Minnesota will deal with Goligoski’s injury is less certain.

Lucia said he is hopeful the freshman can play with a cast on his left hand, as Derek Peltier did when he broke his hand earlier this year.

“You control your stick more with your top hand than your bottom hand anyway,” Lucia said. “He’ll lose some power on his shot, but he can still pass.”

But until Goligoski is fitted with a hard cast today or Thursday, the Gophers won’t know much about his status.

Until then, they’ll continue to try to run their power play with a defensive corps that has been struggling to get healthy all year.

Nate Hagemo and Peltier are still practicing in no-contact jerseys, and with only defenseman Chris Harrington left to run the power play against the Sioux, Minnesota shifted to an umbrella formation with one defenseman at the point.

“We have enough guys that can make a play, but especially against (Maine goaltender Jim) Howard, you can’t just throw a wrister from the blue line,” Harrington said. “I’ve never been on a team with a ‘D’ this bruised, and I’ll miss that comfort level of being familiar with what Alex would do. We’re just flying by the seat of our pants.”