Gophers set to start tournament in Denver

Mark Remme

Adrenaline and a raucous crowd seemed to propel Minnesota’s men’s hockey team to its best back-to-back game performances in recent memory last weekend at the Western Collegiate Final Five.

But that was at the Xcel Energy Center, a venue nestled in the heart of the Twin Cities and thousands of Gophers fans.

When Minnesota (30-9-3 overall) heads west to Denver this weekend for the NCAA West Regional, it won’t have the boost of nearly 20,000 fans electrifying the arena.

Players hope, however, that when they face off with Air Force (19-15-5) Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Central at the Pepsi Center, they’ll keep that level of intensity by focusing on repetition.

“Coaches have been talking about keeping with the things we’ve been doing all season – habits, habits, habits,” freshman defenseman David Fischer said. “Practicing for a purpose and creating good habits so when the game comes it seems natural.”

It seemed like Minnesota got in the habit of lock-down defense and hard-nosed play deep in its offensive and defensive zones right before the WCHA Final Five.

The Gophers allowed just two goals in each of their games against Wisconsin and North Dakota. That included a sound defensive performance against the high-powered Sioux in which Minnesota allowed just 25 shots on goal.

“We’re thinking defense first and offense almost second,” senior goaltender Kellen Briggs said. “It’s something we’ve tried to drive home all year, and I think it’s really helped a lot.”

But while defense and solid goaltending is crucial for playoff runs, Minnesota will need to tap into its recent stretch of playing games start to finish, not in 40-minute intervals like they became prone to doing late in the regular season.

It’s something coach Don Lucia’s emphasized in much of the past few weeks, and it’s rubbed off on his players.

“It’s going to take a full 60-minute effort every night (to get out of the West Regional),” freshman defenseman Erik Johnson said. “We’ve gotta play hard and we’ve gotta play smart.”

The Gophers will have to shut down a few Hobey Baker Award finalists, too.

Air Force junior forward Eric Ehn is the first one they’ll see. He’s dominated his conference all season long, leading the Atlantic Hockey Association in goals (24) assists (40) and points (64).

And if Minnesota gets past him, it will have to face either Michigan senior forward T.J. Hensick or North Dakota sophomore forward Ryan Duncan, two more Hobey finalists.

But Lucia stressed all week regardless of who the Gophers line up against, it’s all about bringing their best performance because anyone can walk away from a single elimination game.

“If you don’t maintain (intensity) you’re not going to advance,” Lucia said. “That’s the bottom line. At this time of year you have to play complete games and live to fight another day.”

Puck notes

Senior goaltender Kellen Briggs looks to win his 84th career game this weekend in Denver, which would set a new record for most wins by a single goalie in WCHA history.

Heading into the NCAA tournament, WCHA teams are 51-22-6 against the five other Division I conferences, a .684 win percentage.

Since 1951, WCHA teams combined to win 36 national championships.

Three Hobey Baker finalists reside in the West Regional, but none play for top-seeded Minnesota.