Season of unknowns closes accordingly

Minnesota plays North Dakota tonight in the second Frozen Four semifinal.

Ben Goessling

For a Frozen Four with a quartet of teams from the same conference, there are quite a few unknowns in the second semifinal.

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team has seen North Dakota three times this year. But even then, the Gophers prepare for tonight’s matchup with the Sioux with several unanswered questions.

The Gophers have played North Dakota just once in the last five months, and that game – a 4-2 Gophers loss without Tyler Hirsch and Alex Goligoski in the WCHA Final Five third-place game – isn’t much of a barometer for round four.

“Obviously, both teams know each other pretty well,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “But it’s not like we’re going on our fourth, fifth or sixth meeting,”

The Sioux finished the WCHA regular season in fifth place but since then have won six of their last seven games, losing in overtime to Denver in the Final Five semifinals.

Minnesota, on the other hand, lost both of its games in the Final Five, only to rebound for a pair of wins in the NCAA West Regional.

All told, there are enough sticky subplots here to make “Waiting for Godot” seem as straight-forward as “Waiting to Exhale.”

Whither the goaltender?

Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs and North Dakota’s Jordan Parise each posted a shutout in their respective regional tournaments, but neither has exactly been a model of consistency this season.

Briggs, by his own admission, played “horrible” in the loss to North Dakota in the Final Five – his first game back after missing seven contests with a broken bone in his left pinky finger – and only gave up fewer than three goals in one of his 10 outings before that.

Parise, by comparison, has given up just 15 goals in his last 11 games. But he started the season with 18 goals allowed in his first six starts, including a 6-0 loss to the Gophers on Oct. 23.

“We have to look back to that game and see how we beat them so bad in their own arena,” forward Danny Irmen said. “At this point, it’s more about worrying about yourself.”

Defensively speaking

The Gophers’ forwards figure to have their hands full with North Dakota’s physical style of play, especially on the small rink at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

“They’re going to make life miserable for our forwards,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We know they’re going to be physical, and we’re not going to win that battle. Our forwards have to get to the net.”

Minnesota boasts the fifth-best offensive attack in the nation, but it could only muster three goals in the NCAA West Regional.

The Gophers scratched out overtime wins over Maine and Cornell, giving up just 43 shots for the weekend and shielding Briggs from almost every major scoring threat.

“I love seeing our guys play like that,” Briggs said. “We were almost perfect on defense, and if we do that, we have a serious shot to win.”

Lineups not quite in line

The Gophers expect Hirsch, who has practiced in his normal spot on the third line this week, will be back in the lineup today.

Goligoski’s status is less certain.

He had a hard cast removed from his broken left hand and was practicing with normal defensive pair-mate Chris Harrington this week.

Goligoski’s return would give Minnesota its best power-play point man back. But if Goligoski isn’t ready to go this weekend, Lucia might turn to P.J. Atherton for a more physical lineup against the Sioux.

At this point, that decision looks like a toss-up – which puts it in line with everything else about this weekend.