UMD series is crucial for U hockey

Aaron Kirscht

As if sitting dead last in the WCHA wasn’t bad enough, the Gophers men’s hockey team continues to find itself on luck’s bad side.
Sure, they could use a break. But they could probably use a ride to the rink first.
Last week, defenseman Mike Lyons got in a shoving match with a semi. Then forward Dave Spehar had his car stolen. Then a deer took a wrong turn and ran into forward Nate Miller’s truck.
Although Minnesota looks as vulnerable as ever heading into its weekend series with intrastate rival Minnesota-Duluth — one of the hottest teams in the plenty-hot WCHA — Bulldogs coach Mike Sertich isn’t comfortable.
“I never feel good about playing them,” Sertich said. “I liken them to a wounded animal; you just don’t know what to expect.”
Win, lose or split, Sertich got the wounded part right. Freshman Matt Leimbek is sidelined with a groin pull, junior Wyatt Smith — the Gophers’ leading scorer — is questionable with flu symptoms, and senior Ryan Kraft could miss more time while waiting for his left hand to heal. Senior Casey Hankinson may also be limited by the hip pointer injury he suffered last weekend, but he will play.
Barring a series of overnight recoveries, the Gophers will dress only nine forwards and five defensemen. For a club that’s had trouble enough with putting together a one-game win streak, those numbers make the chances of a much-needed — if not must-have — sweep awfully slim.
“It would behoove us to take advantage of an opportunity to move up (in the standings) here,” Minnesota coach Doug Woog said. “But I don’t want to say it’s a must-win, because I don’t want to use that word, but we really need to win some games.”
The Gophers and Minnesota-Duluth split to open the WCHA season Oct. 24-25, but it’s safe to say that as Minnesota’s situation has worsened, the Bulldogs have improved.
Goaltender Brant Nicklin, who won the league’s Rookie of the Year award last season, has again emerged as one of the WCHA’s top backstops. Nicklin was huge in the Bulldogs’ sweep of then-league-leading St. Cloud State, allowing only one goal — on the power play — in the last 75 minutes of the series.
“He’s been more consistent of late than he was early on,” Sertich said, “and the other young guys have grown up a bit, too.”
Sertich filled some defensive holes of his own with a pair of freshmen, Ryan Coole and Jesse Fibiger, with positive results. And his “young guys” line of freshman Ryan Homstol and sophomores Jeff Scissons and Colin Anderson is one of the most productive in the league; against St. Cloud State, they combined for 16 points.
“When the season started,” Sertich said, “the obvious guys we were going to lean on were the upperclassmen. But the kids kind of came to the front and virtually carried us in the beginning of the year.”
After a slow (4-7) start, the Bulldogs’ turnaround came in mid-December. A rigorous schedule that included a long trip to Alaska, followed by a tournament in Syracuse, N.Y., with a short Christmas break in between “brought us closer together,” Sertich said.
The Bulldogs have gone 8-2-1 since then, jumping to fifth place in the WCHA — right where the Gophers need to be if they plan to host a playoff series. But Minnesota has won only four games since Nov. 8.
The postseason implications bring added significance to a series that — with only a couple of hours between the schools — doesn’t really need the help.
“One (win) doesn’t help us a lot,” Woog said. “It keeps us afloat. But losing two would make a significant impact.”