Hockey team gets off to explosive start verus Irish

by David La

Somewhere between goals four and five of the Minnesota scoring barrage, amid raised sticks and pumping fists, the elusive, intangible force called momentum enveloped the Gophers hockey team.
Minnesota seemingly fed off each celebration, leading to more goals and finally, a runaway 7-3 win over Notre Dame Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
The rejuvenated attack was led by newcomers Matt Koalska and Grant Potulny, each of whom popped unassisted goals in the first period.
“Its nice to see (the freshmen) get on the board,” senior captain Erik Westrum said. “It gets their confidence up and at the same time it gets our team up. I know its only one game, but that’s nice to see right away.”
Immediate results were the missing component of the 1999-2000 season. Minnesota’s murderous schedule left them with a 1-4-1 record early-on, and all the starting power of a car battery on a frigid January morning.
Saturday’s game showcased an offensive attack with an amount of cold cranking amps befitting a team picked to finish third in the WCHA by conference coaches.
While momentum can be dangerous when harnessed, it’s lethal when manufactured. Attempting to capture the latter, the Gophers came out bent on exploiting the trio of freshmen defensemen on the Irish roster.
“We said, `Let’s see if we can be real aggressive on the forecheck and go after them,'” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
The tactic worked. Koalska stole a pass deep in Notre Dame’s zone, then shot the puck by Irish goaltender Tony Zasowski.
“The goalie gave me the glove side, and I think I hit the top of his glove and it rolled in,” Koalska said.
Potulny checked-in with his first goal late in period one, a squib-kick of a shot which trickled through Zasowski’s legs.
Potulny, from Grand Forks, N.D., scored the first goal by a Gophers player not from Minnesota since Steve MacSwain of Alaska in the 1987 season.
Fellow freshman Troy Riddle notched his first score early in the third period, the final contribution from the well-received rookie class.
“The freshmen didn’t feel like they had to carry a line,” Lucia said. “They just had to complement a line.”
Six out of seven freshmen played in the USHL or on development teams last season. The end result is a breed of player which is more experienced, skilled and physically matured than his or her high school counterparts.
From wing Jon Waibel on the first line through Paul Martin on the second wave of defensemen, at least one freshman played on each of the Gophers four lines Saturday.
“I felt pretty comfortable playing any line against any line tonight, whereas last year we watched the matchups more closely,” Lucia said.
In all, Lucia received assurance for his decision to sprinkle in the budding talents of his freshmen. The contingent responded with five points, compared to last season in which the seniors never combined for more than four points in a game.
Fittingly, a Gophers team in search of a jump-start got it from the fresh sparkplugs inserted into the lineup.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]