Road gets Rocky as Gophers travel west

The Gophers have a score to settle after Denver swept them 6-2 and 6-3 last year.

Ben Goessling

After already playing series with Wisconsin and North Dakota, calling Minnesota’s men’s hockey team’s series with Denver this weekend the biggest of the year so far seems like either a stretch or a dose of overkill.

But apparently not to Gophers defenseman Chris Harrington.

The Gophers head to Magness Arena for the first time since February 27-28, when Denver used a 6-2, 6-3 sweep to launch its run toward an NCAA Championship.

And while Minnesota dispatched the Pioneers 5-2 on Oct. 9 in the season-opening Hall of Fame Game at the Xcel Energy Center, last year’s sweep is still stuck in Harrington’s mind.

“That was a tough weekend for us. That was one of the lower points of the season for us,” Harrington said. “We didn’t just get beat. We got our asses kicked for 120 minutes.

“I think you have to look at this weekend as the biggest of the year.”

Things are a bit different this time around – Minnesota (7-2-0, 5-1-0 WCHA) is tied with Wisconsin atop the conference standings while Denver (5-4, 4-2) struggles to find a replacement goaltender for graduated USA Hockey college player of the year Adam Berkhoel.

But Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said he thinks his team is beginning a surge of its own.

“In a lot of ways, we’re further ahead than this team was at this point last year,” Gwozdecky said. “We still have some things we need to work on – our special teams haven’t been very good, and the goaltenders are still gaining experience – but I’m very pleased with our development.”

Denver outshot Colorado College 90-45 in a home-and-home split with the Tigers last weekend and might have found a No. 1 goalie in Peter Mannino, who has won his last three decisions.

The Pioneers have split time between Mannino and Glenn Fisher the last three weeks, with Mannino getting the call on Saturday nights.

Gwozdecky credited his team’s improvement to an infusion of new players – something he said the Gophers also needed.

“They were loaded with talent last year, but as we all know now, they had some challenges with those people,” Gwozdecky said. “Graduation, in many ways, brings a breath of fresh air. Minnesota’s a great example of that. They probably needed to have a change made with graduation and guys moving on.”

And while the last three national championships will be represented on the ice this weekend, Minnesota and Denver are a study in change – so much so that Gophers coach Don Lucia puts almost no stock in Minnesota’s win Oct. 9.

“They had a tough start, because they had so many road games early,” Lucia said. “I was impressed with them in the Hall of Fame Game, but now they’ll probably start winning a lot more games.”

And besides visiting the defending national champions – and a team that embarrassed them last year – the Gophers have another thing riding on this weekend: first place in the conference standings.

Denver trails Minnesota by two points in the WCHA, and Harrington – who said, along with most of the team, he’s never been in first place – is especially mindful of protecting the Gophers’ strong start.

“There’s no reason for us not to go out there and try to add a little intensity to this weekend,” Harrington said. “We have to look at it as huge, or we’ll get our asses kicked again.”