Gophers toe fine line in final weeks

Minn. is 18th in the Pairwise rankings; it needs to climb those to make the NCAA tournament

Austin Cumblad

Ah, the art of peaking âÄî that elusive, fleeting moment when a team is at its best.

Ideally, it occurs at the brink of the postseason; in reality, itâÄôs hard to pinpoint.

To wit: the Minnesota menâÄôs hockey team. Here are the Gophers, on their first three-game unbeaten streak since mid-November, one point clear of Colorado College for the final home-ice slot in the WCHA playoffs and averaging 3.67 goals per game in their last six.

But playing their best hockey? Head coach Don Lucia doesnâÄôt quite accept the premise.

âÄúIf you go back a month or two I think weâÄôre pretty much playing the same way,âÄù Lucia said, âÄúonly [now] a few pucks are going in.âÄù

Minnesota has been run through the gauntlet in the early part of 2011, with series against the current Nos. 1, 6, 7 and 13 in the country, and made it out the other side 4-4-2. It knocked Denver from the top spot in the conference with a commanding 7-3 win on Feb. 12 and overtook Colorado College for sixth in the WCHA with three points at Wisconsin last weekend.

And yet thereâÄôs this: The Gophers have scored three or more goals in four of their previous five games but have only two wins in that span.

See why this peaking thing is tricky?

Point is, last-place Michigan Tech is at Mariucci Arena this weekend, and Minnesota, if it is to have any chance at making the NCAA tournament, needs to string together wins, something it hasnâÄôt yet been able to do this season.

âÄúFor us, itâÄôs a fine line,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôre a good team, weâÄôre not a great team. WeâÄôve shown that we can beat anybody, but weâÄôve also shown that anybody can beat us.âÄù

The GophersâÄô current three-game unbeaten streak matches their longest of the season. Though a sweep at Michigan Tech was part of one of those streaks, the Huskies beat then-No. 4 Denver last Friday for their second WCHA win of the year.

Keeping the hot streak alive, even against teams like Michigan Tech and Bemidji State, which is tied for ninth in the league, will be no small task.

âÄúWeâÄôve shown that we can play with the top teams, but our record against the top and the bottom is pretty much the same,âÄù Lucia said.

Senior captain Jay Barriball will be out of the lineup for the third straight weekend, but Minnesota has proven it can produce offensively without its former leading scorer.

Senior Jacob Cepis, the reigning WCHA co-offensive player of the week, has a point in his last four games and now leads the team with 26. Fellow senior Cade Fairchild has nine points in the previous six games, and a third senior, Patrick White, has scored a point in four-straight series despite playing only intermittently during the first half of the season.

âÄúItâÄôs not magic,âÄù Cepis said, trying to explain the veteransâÄô recent scoring barrage. âÄúItâÄôs just, you shoot pucks and the puck goes in.âÄù