Men’s hockey team rolls past Latvians 7-1

Lou Raguse

During the Minnesota men’s hockey team’s exhibition game against HC Riga 2000 of Latvia on Thursday, Gophers coach Don Lucia wanted to try new line combinations and give ice time to players who have not seen much in the last few weeks.

Lucia did both of those things and was rewarded with a convincing win against the Latvians 7-1.

After No. 7 Wisconsin only beat HC Riga 2000 3-2 on Tuesday, the Gophers knew they were up against a tough team. And although the Latvians perhaps brought more physical play than Minnesota expected, the Gophers had little trouble finding the net.

The win did not count toward the Gophers’ season record, but it provided an encouraging stepping stone toward next weekend’s Holiday Classic.

“We got out of it what we needed,” coach Don Lucia said. “We scored some five-on-five goals, which is something we talked about in practice.”

Minnesota got on the board early in the first period as Brett MacKinnon, who had previously only played in one game, scored after captain Grant Potulny skated through the HC Riga 2000 defense and found him at the right side of the net. Although the goal will not count in the season’s statistics, it was his first of the year.

“It’s always nice to score,” MacKinnon said. “Of course, not as nice as it is in regular-season games, but it was nice to get some experience tonight.”

Ten Minnesota players contributed to the scoring, including three-point nights from Matt Koalska, Danny Irmen, Troy Riddle and Chris Harrington.

Justin Johnson started in the net for the Gophers, stopping 27 shots en route to victory.

“I told J.J. that is the best game he’s played all year,” Lucia said. “He was relaxed out there, and he always plays better when he’s relaxed.

In the second period, Johnson deflected several hard slap shots from HC Riga 2000, and got the benefit of a couple posts until finally the Latvians got on the board with an Oleksandr Pachenko slap shot from the right circle.

That would be the only goal the Latvians would see for the night as frustration set in and Minnesota was able to capitalize.

“For a while there, the action was really over at the other goal,” Johnson said. “But 28 shots are enough to keep involved in the game.”

Irmen finished with two goals and an assist in one of his finest outings of the season. After his second goal, he was cuffed across the face by a Latvian player.

“That kind of surprised me,” Irmen said. “But when you play an international team, things get physical. Hopefully this carries over into next weekend.”

On Dec. 20, Minnesota plays Princeton in the first game of the Dodge Holiday Classic, and will play either New Hampshire or Miami (Ohio) the next day. HC Riga 2000 concludes its three-game tour of the WCHA on Monday, facing Minnesota-Duluth.