U prepares for the road less traveled

Aaron Kirscht

When the Gophers men’s hockey team last went on the road for the first round of the playoffs, senior co-captain Casey Hankinson couldn’t walk across the living room, much less streak down a sheet of ice.
That was 21 years ago, and if it doesn’t illustrate the unfamiliarity of the upcoming postseason for Minnesota (12-16-0 in the WCHA, sixth place), nothing will. But unlike that wobbly kid taking his first steps, Hankinson knows there’s no room to stumble this weekend against Minnesota-Duluth (14-12-2, fifth).
“The regular season is so much different from the playoffs, just the whole mentality of it,” Hankinson said. “It’s not that we’re not trying to win every game during the regular season, because we are, but the playoffs are just live and die.
“You have to win.”
The Gophers are 24-1 in the WCHA first round under coach Doug Woog. The Bulldogs are 0-9 in the playoffs since advancing into the second round of the 1993 NCAA playoffs. History seems to lean in Minnesota’s favor, but then again, it’s been like that for most of the season. More often than not, the numbers haven’t mattered.
“We’re not going to go up there and score three quick goals both nights and come back with a sweep,” Hankinson said. “It’s going to be games where you’re biting your nails, getting down and digging deep in the corners, just scratching and clawing any way you can to get on the scoreboard.”
Hankinson’s prediction isn’t much of a surprise. In late January, the Gophers swept Minnesota-Duluth 7-1 and 6-5, holding off a Bulldogs rally in the finale to earn its first WCHA sweep of the season.
For the most part, the Bulldogs seemed out of sorts. But they can’t afford a similar performance in a series of this magnitude.
“I look back at that weekend and I have not been quite able to put a finger on what went wrong for us,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Mike Sertich said. “They weren’t going good at the time and we were. I think the conditions for beating us were absolutely perfect, and they did.
“I don’t know what happened to our guys. I don’t know if we were too uptight, if we weren’t ready enough. I’ve never been able to figure that out.”
Sertich suggested the Gophers were arrogant after that series, but Bulldogs captain Mike Peluso had another explanation.
“Anytime you get two Minnesota teams butting heads,” Peluso said, “the team that comes out on top is definitely going to rub it into the faces of the one who doesn’t.”
Minnesota-Duluth is rarely in a position to rub anything in the Gophers’ faces, but this might be its best chance in a long time. The Bulldogs are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, thanks to the hot goaltending of Brant Nicklin and one of the WCHA’s top power play units.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have struggled to put a horrid first half behind them. Minnesota has done that, to a certain extent, but a 3-13 road record, and only one win away from Mariucci Arena in the last 13 games, still loom large.
As the old saying goes, every team is a magical 0-0 in the postseason. The playoffs can give life to a down-and-out team or sidetrack a top team with its sights set further down the line.
That quality, Hankinson said, is what makes this such a special time of the year — whether his team is on the road on not.
“You’ll always remember the playoffs,” Hankinson said. “I could tell you the score of every game and how every game ended. So, being a senior, I want to have good memories, and we can do a lot of things in the postseason to erase some of the bad times we had during the regular season.”
Peluso and the rest of his Minnesota-Duluth teammates have never had that chane, having exited the playoffs without an appearance in the Final Five for four straight years. To get by the Gophers would be sweet, he said, but there are greater goals.
“I want to see what advancing in the playoffs is all about,” Peluso said. “The Gophers have been there and most of those guys know what it’s like, but there are a lot of guys here who don’t. With that in mind, I think we just have to give it all we’ve got.”