Improved defense a key at regional

Chris Lempesis

Long known for its high-powered offenses, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team came into the Final Five riding a stingy defense that was in full lockdown mode.

Forwards, defensemen and goalies all were contributing and their combined efforts were a major reason the Gophers had allowed just 12 goals over their eight-game win streak.

But then came the weekend in St. Paul, and Minnesota’s defense went from stingy to, well, overly welcoming, allowing 12 goals in losses to St. Cloud State and Wisconsin.

The Gophers will need to correct that in this weekend’s NCAA West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D. Minnesota (27-8-5) faces Holy Cross (26-9-2) at 5:30 tonight at Ralph Engelstad Arena, and if it wins, it will face the Michigan-North Dakota winner at 8 p.m. Saturday for the right to advance to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee.

“It was definitely the last thing that we really thought would happen,” senior defenseman Chris Harrington said. “Especially after the previous month or so of how our defense has played so well, but it was just one of those nights and one of those weekends where not a lot goes right.”

Turnovers, failure to effectively keep shots to the outside – something the Gophers had done exceptionally well during their hot streak – and poor defense against odd-man rushes perhaps were the biggest areas of defensive failure during the Final Five.

There was also the issue of playing on the Xcel Energy Center’s NHL-sized rink, which is smaller than the ice at Mariucci Arena, thus giving Minnesota’s defense less room to maneuver.

“We got back in the small rink, we hadn’t played in it for awhile,” coach Don Lucia said. “And, especially, I think with the goalline as tight to the end boards as it was, things happen more in a hurry.”

Junior Kellen Briggs, one of the biggest reasons Minnesota had rattled off a 20-1-1 mark since mid-December, was pulled in Friday night’s 8-7 overtime loss to St. Cloud State after allowing five goals on just 22 shots. Freshman Jeff Frazee was just as bad in relieving Briggs, allowing three goals on 16 shots, including taking a bad angle on the game-winner.

Briggs came back Saturday and was a bit better, but still allowed four goals on 30 shots.

Briggs didn’t seem overly concerned by his performances, though, saying he and goalie coach Robb Stauber have pinpointed the things he needs to correct this weekend. He also said the poor showings don’t place any added pressure on him.

“Whatever (the fans and the media) want to put on me is fine,” Briggs said. “I don’t put any extra pressure on myself. I think that’s sort of an external thing that’s going on.”

Harrington was quick to say he has full confidence in Briggs.

“I think more of anything, it was a team defense fault,” Harrington said. “Not letting him see pucks and not being competitive in the defensive zone. If we don’t give ourselves a chance to win battles in the defensive zone, we’re not going to give Kellen a chance to stop the puck.”

The Gophers’ defense will have to give Briggs a chance to stop the puck and he will have to stop the puck if the Gophers want to keep their season – one that seemed destined to end in Milwaukee before last weekend – going.

“It’s getting back to what we need to do,” Harrington said. “And we know that this weekend, unlike last weekend, it’s do or die.”

Line changes

Judging from practice this week, Minnesota will head into the West Regional with a pair of new lines.

Struggling sophomore forward Mike Howehas been bumped down to the fourth line and more than likely will play with senior Andy Sertich and freshman Justin Bostrom.

Sophomore forward Evan Kaufmann has been moved from the fourth line to replace Howe on the line with senior Gino Guyer and sophomore Kris Chucko.