Men’s hockey looks to muster up momentum

by Michael Rand

One year after celebrating a league championship alongside their men’s basketball counterparts, members of the Gophers men’s hockey team looked to the roundballers for a harder lesson Thursday.
Junior Wyatt Smith and senior Casey Hankinson noted the basketball team’s just-completed win over Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament as perhaps a signal of what could be done.
Smith suggested the long-shot Gophers were going to win the Big Ten tourney and earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs. Hankinson, while not completely convinced, said, “You can’t ever give up.”
That’s the way Hankinson, Smith and their teammates have been forced to approach their own season as they prepare for the conclusion of the regular season, a home-and-away series against St. Cloud State.
With home-ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs no longer possible, the Gophers (14-20, 10-16 in the WCHA) know they will need to win a slew of games outside of Mariucci Arena to win the league playoff championship and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA hockey tournament.
But they also know that it doesn’t do any good to give up before the season is officially over. Until then, they reason, anything can happen.
“We know what’s ahead of us,” goaltender Steve DeBus said. “We haven’t played as well as we’ve wanted to, but I don’t see (winning the playoffs) as a task we can’t accomplish.”
A running start — namely a pair of wins or at least a hard-earned split this weekend — would aid whatever playoff run Minnesota can muster in a couple of ways.
First, the Gophers would gain some much-needed confidence on the road — where they haven’t won since Nov. 7 — with a big performance tonight in St. Cloud.
Second, Minnesota could move up a valuable spot in the final standings and playoff seedings.
The seventh-place Gophers are one point behind sixth-place Michigan Tech, which plays at Colorado College this weekend. Given the teams’ opponents, there is a reasonable chance Minnesota will pass Michigan Tech in the standings.
If that were to happen, the Gophers would travel to face fifth-place Minnesota-Duluth — a team they went 3-1 against this year — in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“Obviously, you want to finish as high as you can,” Hankinson said. “Duluth is my favorite place to play in the league, and we’ve had some success against them since I’ve been here.”
That scenario, however, will fall by the wayside if the Gophers have as much trouble solving St. Cloud State goaltender Brian Leitza as they did in the team’s mid-December series.
The Huskies swept those two games, 3-1 and 4-1, as Leitza stopped a combined 73 of 75 shots. In the first game of that series, Minnesota outshot St. Cloud State 42-9.
“He’s a good goaltender who’s capable of doing that,” DeBus said. “But a lot has changed since then. I think we’ve improved, and we can’t worry about what happened in the past.”
Smith and Reggie Berg, who are both in contention for the WCHA scoring title are two players who could make the teams’ first meeting seem like a distant memory. Smith, who has only one point in 11 career games against the Huskies, would like to see a better-late-than-never charge start this weekend.
“It’s always good to play a good team heading into the playoffs,” Smith said. “This is still a big weekend for us.”

Note: As of Thursday, the Gophers’ injury situation looks like this: Stuart Senden is out, Erik Day is doubtful, Aaron Miskovich and Mike Anderson are questionable and Hankinson is probable.