Minnesota anything but shipshape heading into NCAAs

Tyler Hirsch is just one of the unknowns as Minnesota gets ready for Maine.

Ben Goessling

You couldn’t blame Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia if he feels like assessing his team’s chances in the NCAA Tournament is roughly akin to extolling the virtues of an AMC Gremlin

The Gophers played Saturday’s WCHA Final Five third-place game with North Dakota minus defensemen Alex Goligoski and Nate Hagemo.

And Tyler Hirsch, their leading scorer, wasn’t in the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday after hurtling himself into the net following Friday’s loss to Colorado College.

And Minnesota has to settle on a starting goaltender this week.

Forget maroon-colored glasses. You’d pretty much have to be seeing the world from a padded room to think the West Regional’s top seed Minnesota is entering the national tournament in top shape.

Nonetheless, Lucia tried to be the voice of optimism after the Gophers’ 4-2 loss to North Dakota on Saturday.

“We’ll have a good week of practice and be ready to go,” he said.

At this point, it might take more than that.

The Gophers are almost certain to be without a critical piece of their team when they begin the NCAA Tournament by playing host to Maine on Saturday.

Goligoski left the North Dakota game with a hand injury after he was slashed in the first period. Lucia said he doesn’t know the freshman’s status for next weekend yet, but the injury is believed to be a broken wrist, which would end Goligoski’s season.

Hagemo is still nursing a sore shoulder suffered at the World Junior Championships in December.

Lucia also has decisions to make this week on a goalie – Kellen Briggs gave up four goals in his return Saturday – and on whether Hirsch is ready to go for the playoffs.

Hirsch was not made available for comment after his postgame escapade Friday, but Lucia said, “It’s obviously something I’m concerned about.”

When asked if Hirsch had hurt himself by crashing into the net, Lucia replied, “Not physically.”

Briggs gave up a pair of soft goals Saturday and stopped just 18 of 22 shots in his first game since Feb. 12.

“I felt as good as I could have,” he said. “I was a little rusty. But by the end, I felt like I was in midseason form.”

But the Gophers need Briggs to be in early-season form for him to carry them through the playoffs. Unless he can be the goalie who led Minnesota on a 13-2 run in November and December, the Gophers will likely turn to Johnson, who won six straight games before Friday’s loss to Colorado College.

When asked whom his starting goaltender would be for the playoff opener, Lucia was noncommittal.

“It’s only Saturday,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about that yet.”

But if the coach is taking a long view of the Gophers’ weekend struggles, forward Danny Irmen saw a troubling trend in Saturday’s loss to the Sioux.

“Right away, we were a little more lackadaisical mentally and physically than we needed to be,” he said.

Briggs added: “We have to play as hard as we can. Some guys did that. That’s what makes us a team.”

If the Gophers have recurring questions about effort, like they did after being swept by Michigan Tech in January, selling the aforementioned Gremlin might be an easier task than Minnesota’s drive to the Frozen Four.