Gophers head into postseason on long hot streak

Minnesota has won 18 of its past 20 games and is unbeaten in its past 12.

Chris Lempesis

The zamboni was barely done refinishing the ice at Mariucci Arena on Saturday night and already the talk was shifting toward next weekend for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

That’s because next weekend, for the Gophers, is when the real season begins.

Top-ranked Minnesota will kick off its playoff run by hosting Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs. The best-of-three series starts at 7:07 p.m. Friday at Mariucci Arena.

The Gophers are clearly a team that’s ready to get going.

“We feel good about where we’re at right now,” coach Don Lucia said after Saturday’s 2-0 win over Duluth.

“(The) lines are pretty well set. Everything’s set for the most part as we head into the playoffs and that’s the way you want it.”

Things certainly appear well set up for the top-ranked Gophers (25-6-5, 20-5-3 WCHA) entering the playoffs as they are as hot as any team in the country, let alone the conference. They are 18-1-1 in their last 20 games and currently on a 12-game unbeaten streak (11-0-1).

This recent stretch has made Minnesota the No. 1 seed as regular season champions. That hasn’t happened in a while – the 1991-1992 season, to be exact.

“It’s about time,” senior defenseman Chris Harrington said Saturday. “I don’t know; it’s kind of nice just to be the one-seed going into the tournament and know that kind of, things are going your way. For the most part, during my career, we’ve always been in the two or three slot.”

Being the top seed in arguably the best conference in the country, of course, also makes Minnesota the team with the biggest target on its collective back.

Not that the Gophers are ducking from that.

“That’s how we want it,” junior forward Ryan Potulny said Saturday. “Obviously you want the target on your back. That means you’re playing well. And you come to Minnesota for that sole reason: to be one of the top teams.”

Minnesota has become the team with the biggest target by way of strong performances in all facets of the game, especially on defense.

The Gophers have not allowed a goal in their past 208:24 of action, a stretch that encompasses almost three-and-a-half games.

That time span also includes periods in which Minnesota has given up zero (the second period at Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday) and one shot on goal (the first period of Friday’s 7-0 win over Duluth).

It was this aspect of the Gophers game that impressed Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin the most compared to the first time the teams met, in Duluth in early November.

“No one gives them credit for how well they play defensively,” Sandelin said Friday. “Everyone talks about Minnesota’s offense, but give them credit for playing very well defensively.”

After his team was swept Saturday night, Sandelin credited Minnesota, as a whole.

“Us coaches are smart,” he said. “We picked them to win the league (before the season). They’re playing well right now.

“They are where they are for a reason.”