Rocky start for defending champs

Denver, the two-time defending national champion, has started the year 5-4-1.

Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team’s opponent this weekend, Denver, is a team that’s struggling.

The two-time defending national champions have stumbled to a 5-4-1 start (3-2-1 WCHA) and earned just one point at Minnesota State-Mankato last weekend.

Not that any of this matters to Gophers’ coach Don Lucia.

“Last year, I believe they started (6-4) too and went on to win (the national title),” Lucia said. “So, as we all know, it’s not what you do in the first 10 games of the season, it’s what you do at the end.”

Still, No. 10 Minnesota (5-3-2, 5-2-1 WCHA) hopes to keep No. 11 Denver on the downslide this weekend when the teams meet for a two-game Western Collegiate Hockey Association set at Magness Arena in a battle of teams that have claimed the past four national championships.

On top of all the subpar play, the Pioneers have been dealing with injuries to some key players, including star senior forward Gabe Gauthier (knee). Denver coach George Gwozdecky said Gauthier will be a game time decision both nights.

“It’s going to be a real challenge to be able to match up with (Minnesota) and to play with them throughout the six periods of the weekend,” Gwozdecky said.

As weakened as their opponent might seem to be, the Gophers aren’t going to be tricked into overlooking the Pioneers.

Junior forward Danny Irmen said Denver’s slow start is no indication of what kind of team the Gophers are going to face this weekend.

“Denver (has) a lot of similarities to us,” Irmen said. “They tend to kind of start slower, and they’re always hot at the end of the year. So the Denver you see early in the season will be different than you see late in the season.”

Irmen to return

The Gophers received some good news Wednesday when they learned star junior forward Irmen will play this weekend against Denver.

Irmen had been out since Minnesota’s regular season opener against Alaska-Fairbanks on Oct. 14 with a broken finger.

Irmen said he received clearance to play Wednesday from the doctor who performed his surgery at University Medical Center, Fairview.

“(I’m) definitely excited,” Irmen said. “It’s been a long four weeks, so I’m definitely ready to get back out on the ice and I wouldn’t want to be out there with anybody else, against Denver.”

It was originally thought that Irmen would be doubtful for the series with the Pioneers and wouldn’t make his return until next weekend’s road games at Michigan and Michigan State

The injury came when Irmen blocked a shot late in Minnesota’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Nanooks at Mariucci Arena.

“I actually shattered my finger,” Irmen said. “I got eight screws and a plate in there. So I broke it pretty good.”