Duluth series looms large for Gophers

Adam Fink

Quicker passes, fewer one-on-one battles, smaller neutral zones and reduced fatigue.

Those are four adjustments Minnesota’s men’s hockey team prepares to make this weekend for the first time since October.

The sixth-ranked Gophers (17-7-7, 12-5-5 WCHA) travel to face rival Minnesota-Duluth this weekend in the 5,333-seat Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.

With a 190 x 85 ice sheet size, the DECC is similar to the ice Minnesota played on Oct. 25-26 at Michigan Tech (200 x 85).

“It’s been a long time since we played on a smaller rink,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “Things are going to happen differently and we need to be ready.”

In preparation, Minnesota spent the week practicing at the smaller Ridder Arena (200 x 85), home to the women’s hockey team.

The Gophers practiced Thursday in Duluth to learn the angles.

“The bounces off the wall are different,” said goaltender Travis Weber, who is expected to start Friday’s opener. “It’s harder to get a read on the puck. But at least our skilled players can get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ quicker.”

However, the time to execute a play will decrease because there is less distance to travel.

And the Gophers, accustomed to using their speed and finesse, won’t have the luxury.

“There isn’t that much time to make a play,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “I don’t think it should take us too long to adjust.”

Minnesota hopes Martin’s comment holds true if the Gophers want to earn four points this weekend. In each of the last two seasons, Minnesota has lost the Friday night game in Duluth before salvaging a split.

The surprising Bulldogs (15-11-4, 11-8-3) have won four consecutive games, leaving them four points behind the Gophers in the conference standings.

In addition, Minnesota-Duluth’s dramatic improvement from a ninth-place conference finish last year presents the most competitive Bulldogs squad in recent memory.

“Who would have thought we would be in a battle for home ice (in the WCHA playoffs)?” coach Scott Sandelin said. “Our team is always competitive against Minnesota. It’s going to be a physical game.”

Three weeks ago Minnesota-Duluth was swept by Minnesota State-Mankato and appeared to be out of the hunt for a top-five finish.

After two sweeps of their own, the Bulldogs are back in the race and proved how turbulent the conference is this season.

But with only three series per team left in the regular season, neither team can afford to slip up this weekend.

“Both teams are looking forward to the match-up,” Lucia said. “We just have to keep earning points.”

From the bench Ö

Due to sophomore Jerrid Reinholz’s shoulder injury, Nick Anthony is expected to play both games. The alternate captain has struggled recently.

Joey Martin will continue to line up at defense and was praised by Lucia for his recent play. Martin played at defense in both games last weekend against Wisconsin.

Forward Garrett Smaagaard is also expected to see action in one of the games this weekend.

Series of the weekend

North Dakota (28 points) travels to second-place Minnesota State-Mankato (31) in a weekend match-up that could have significant implications in the final standings.

The fourth-place Sioux have struggled recently and are now looking up in the standings to the Mavericks.

Both games at the Mankato Civic Center are sold out and the team is hoping to set record attendance marks this weekend.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]