Gophers resume conference play vs. MSU-Mankato

Minnesota will play a home and home series with the Mavericks.

Junior defense Nate Schmidt plays against Canisius on Sunday.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Junior defense Nate Schmidt plays against Canisius on Sunday.

Drew Claussen

Last weekend was an unusual one for the Gophers, who played an exhibition game and a nonconference opponent while taking a day off Saturday. This weekend, things return to normal.

The Gophers (4-1-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) will play a home-and home series with Minnesota State-Mankato (2-2-2, 0-2-0 WCHA). Friday night’s game will be played at Mariucci Arena, and Saturday’s will be at Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato, Minn.

The two teams will face off four times this season after only playing twice the previous two years.

Junior defenseman Nate Schmidt said he was happy to be playing Friday- and Saturday-night WCHA games again.

“That threw a wrench in the old schedule,” Schmidt said about playing Sunday afternoon. “It is exciting to get back into the real swing of things, having a good series against a good [Minnesota] State team this weekend.”

Minnesota swept the Mavericks at Mariucci Arena last December, but head coach Don Lucia said it wouldn’t be as easy this time around.

“We talked about last year — they got devastated by injuries early in the year,” Lucia said. “I think they have a real deep and talented group of forwards.”

The Mavericks were undefeated through their first four contests but were brought back down to earth last weekend when St. Cloud State swept them.

“They’re good. They’ve got a lot of older … experienced [junior hockey] guys,” Schmidt said. “Matt Leitner is a good skill player — he can make you pay.”

Lucia has a history with new Mavericks coach Mike Hastings. Hastings was an assistant coach at Minnesota for the 2008-09 season before moving on to be an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha.

“I know Mike [from] way back,” Lucia said. “I think I recruited him a little bit … but he was a wimp and didn’t want to go to Alaska.”

Lucia coached Alaska schools from 1981 to 1993.

The injury bug has pestered the Gophers in recent weeks, but Minnesota will get one key piece back this weekend in Brady Skjei, who sat out last weekend.

The Gophers will still play without Sam Warning, who suffered an undisclosed injury last Friday in a game against the U.S. Under-18 team. Ben Marshall replaced Warning on the second line Sunday against Canisius.

Marshall is usually a defenseman, but he will also be used at forward against the Mavericks this weekend.

“I played a little forward back in the day, but it’s nothing compared to playing at the college level,” Marshall said. “Looking at the [defensive] corps, I consider myself really offensive as a defensemen, so I think that’s why [Lucia] put me in that spot.”

Marshall said that playing on the second line with high-scoring players like Erik Haula and Zach Budish has helped ease the transition from defense to offense.

“They’re both extremely skilled forwards,” Marshall said. “At times I felt bad for them, with me being on their line, but I thought we played pretty well.”

The Gophers’ dual-goaltender experiment could end this weekend. Junior Michael Shibrowski has played every Friday game this season, and freshman Adam Wilcox has been in the net Saturdays. Wilcox had a 20-save shutout against Canisius on Sunday.

Lucia met with the media Wednesday and said he would decide Thursday who would be between the pipes this Friday.

“I think right now we’re more day-to-day than anything else,” Lucia said. “Both guys have a long ways to go to prove themselves that they’re the guy.”