Gophers come out hitting after physical practice

Minnesota skated in full gear for 30 minutes before Saturday’s game.

Ben Goessling

ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Justin Johnson admitted the sight in front of him – two Minnesota men’s hockey players, less than 10 hours before a game, doing one-on-one battle drills in full gear – threw him for a loop.

So in other words, coach Don Lucia got through.

Lucia turned into a drill sergeant after Minnesota’s 5-4 win over St. Cloud State on Friday. Despite a third-period rally, many Gophers felt they didn’t deserve to win the game.

And when Minnesota arrived Saturday afternoon at Mariucci Arena for its typical pregame skate, the Gophers wound up in an all-out scrimmage.

“It kind of raised an eyebrow,” Johnson said. “But I think it sent the message that we’ve got to put the effort in.”

Minnesota (22-12-1, 15-10-1 WCHA) responded with a dominating 4-1 win over the Huskies on Saturday night, a performance that finally evoked the Gophers’ play of November and stemmed from Lucia’s warning shots.

The coach split up forwards Danny Irmen and Ryan Potulny for the first time since January, sat defenseman Mike Vannelli for P.J. Atherton and completely reworked Minnesota’s top two lines in an effort to put a more physical team on the ice.

Lucia was prepared to sit center Evan Kaufmann until Jake Fleming, who was hit in the skate by a puck Friday, had to sit out with a sore ankle.

And fittingly enough, Kaufmann scored the Gophers’ first goal.

“I thought Evan might be getting comfortable, and he can’t do that,” Lucia said. “Looking at the whole team, our effort was night and day compared to Friday night.”

Mike Howe, playing his first game after sitting out a month with an undisclosed medical condition, skated with Potulny and Barry Tallackson on Minnesota’s first line.

Kris Chucko, Gino Guyer and Irmen made up Minnesota’s second line, which produced two goals and was probably the Gophers’ most effective unit.

“We wanted to come out and throw our bodies around and get the team fired up,” Guyer said. “On our first shift, we probably hit four or five guys.”

Minnesota allowed just five shots in the third period, holding an opponent to fewer than three goals for the first time since Jan. 3.

And heading into the regular-season finale against Michigan Tech this weekend, the Gophers show signs their two-month funk might finally be over.

All it took was a well-timed rattling.

“We’re dealing with a lot of youth, I told the guys on Saturday that if you told me before the season that we’d be fourth in the conference and high in the PairWise Rankings, I would have taken it,” Lucia said. “It’s time to quit feeling sorry for ourselves.”