Briggs adjusting to college hockey ways

Lou Raguse

During last weekend’s series against Denver, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team took to the ice with freshman Kellen Briggs in net.

One of just six non-Minnesotans on the Gophers’ roster, the freshman from Colorado Springs, Colo., looked down the ice toward Pioneers goaltender Adam Berkhoel, a Woodbury, Minn., native.

And in this ironic reversal of home state performances, Briggs stole the show by stopping 25 Denver shots in a 6-2 victory in the series opener.

In that game, Briggs offered Minnesota’s first plus-.900 saves percentage of the season with fast reflexes and glovework that a catcher for a knuckleball pitcher would envy.

“Actually, growing up I didn’t have a very good glove hand, so I’ve kind of been working on it,” Briggs said.

Coach Don Lucia said before the game that it would be nice to have a Colorado kid play big against a Colorado team to counter the Minnesota kids playing well against the Gophers.

Lucia’s wish came true. And the fact that Briggs is not a Minnesota native has had little impact on the team’s chemistry.

Playing in various leagues and on all-star teams throughout his career, Briggs has had many teammates – and not all of them have been friendly.

“In college, it’s great, because everyone gets along,” Briggs said. “It’s the first team I’ve ever been on that has been like that.”

A seasoned rookie

Although Briggs is only a freshman, the 20-year-old has plenty of game experience.

Prior to enrolling at the University, he played three seasons for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League. He led the league in saves and minutes played during his last season there.

“Where we see his most progress is with leg strength,” said Minnesota assistant coach Bob Motzko, who coached Briggs for one year in Sioux Falls, S.D. “He’s explosive down low and capable of big-time saves.”

USHL teams play 60-game seasons, which is nearly double that of a college team. Briggs’ experience reflects on his game-time poise. His biggest adjustment in Minnesota has been to the speed of the game.

“He made a comment to (volunteer goalie coach) Robb Stauber the other day that the game is slowing down for him, and that means he is starting to see the play,” Motzko said. “We’re throwing him right into the fire, and we’re very encouraged here.”

Still earning his place

Despite his strong showing last weekend, Briggs has yet to win the sole starting job at goaltender. Minnesota’s season is only six games old, and the Gophers are far from peaking as a team.

But whether the starting goaltender job for the rest of the season goes to Briggs or junior Justin Johnson is less important than Briggs’ place in the future of Gophers hockey.

Briggs’ role suddenly became more important when Travis Weber, Minnesota’s starting goaltender last year, decided not to return to the team.

“We thought originally that Travis would be our number one goaltender and (Briggs) would come in and press J.J. for the number two spot,” Lucia said.

Now with Briggs splitting time with Johnson, the Gophers are relying on him right off the bat.

But the abrupt change in responsibility did not change Briggs’ outlook on his freshman season.

“I wanted to come in and challenge for the starting job,” Briggs said. “We’ll see what happens, but I want to start as many games as possible as a freshman and take it from there.”