Power-play unit not getting the point

Keith Ballard’s departure has left the Gophers without a power-play point man.

by Ben Goessling

It’s times like these that make Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia wish Keith Ballard had decided to stick around one more year.

When Ballard chose in June to forgo his senior year and sign with the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, it left Lucia with a defensive corps that included three freshmen and a sophomore.

And while the Gophers have made do with their young blueliners for the most part, it is Ballard’s absence on the power play that is now showing up the most.

Last weekend, the Gopers were missing Nate Hagemo for two games and Alex Goligoski for one. They went 1-for-5 with the man advantage in two losses to Michigan Tech.

Minnesota certainly has other problems on the power play, but perhaps the biggest one is the lack of a proven point man.

“That’s the transition we’re dealing with,” Lucia said. “We’ve been missing Goligoski, and even when he’s healthy, you can’t expect him and Chris Harrington to be the same as Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard.”

The Gophers went to work on jump-starting their lagging power play Wednesday but will likely be without Goligoski again this weekend because of a high ankle sprain.

The unit is still ranked 11th in the nation, but its scoring percentage is just 21.0, down significantly from 2001-02 (26.5), 2002-03 (24.9) and last season (26.2).

Those figures, however, were largely because of the presence of three players selected in the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft.

And this season, the absence of a proven power-play quarterback has been evident.

“I know the guys we have here have the talent, but maybe they haven’t figured out they’re capable of doing it,” forward Tyler Hirsch said. “We really haven’t been connecting the last couple games.”

There have certainly been other issues, too – namely the Gophers’ alarming trend of getting shots from the point blocked.

Minnesota had five power-play shots turned away by defensemen Friday and another three Saturday.

Forward Andy Sertich, who played defense Saturday in Goligoski’s absence, said the biggest problem is that the Gophers are making one too many passes, rather than quickly finding a shooting lane and throwing the puck on net.

“A lot of teams in this league are very good at blocking shots,” Sertich said. “If we play a 2-3 with three guys low and the defenseman gets it through, it’s automatically a three-on-two in front of the net. It’s something we’re working on.”

Lucia and Hirsch both also cited the Gophers’ tendency to get too cute with the puck.

But the good news for Minnesota is that the cure to its power-play woes has already been found.

Minnesota encountered the same problem Dec. 3 after going 0-for-5 in a 3-1 loss at Colorado College. Minnesota moved Danny Irmen and Kris Chucko down low the next night, and responded with three power-play goals in a 7-3 win.

And now, Minnesota’s biggest concern is rediscovering what it already knows.

“We’ve gotten a little soft, expecting to make the pretty play,” Hirsch said. “We need to start going old-school and doing anything we can to score.”

Howe out for a month

Freshman forward Mike Howe will miss at least a month with an undisclosed medical condition, the team said Wednesday.

Lucia said the condition was not hockey-related.

“He’s got to go through his treatments,” Lucia said. “He just has to take time off.”

Hagemo is still on track to return this weekend from a shoulder injury, and Derek Peltier, who did not practice Monday after taking a shot in the foot, will also play against Minnesota-Duluth.

Also, forward Ryan Potulny, who had his first scoreless weekend of the season against Michigan Tech, confirmed that Minnesota’s training staff is working on his leg but declined to give specifics of the injury.

Potulny’s skating appeared to be a struggle last weekend, but he hasn’t missed practice, and trainer Mike Vogt said Potulny is “good to go.”