CC provides early season test

by Tim Nichols

The Gophers men’s hockey program is accustomed to sitting in first place. But after last season, in which Minnesota stumbled early and often, sitting atop the WCHA must feel like new.
Only Gophers coach Doug Woog isn’t ready to kick up his heels anytime soon.
“Oh, God,” Woog said. “We’ve got four tough games, if you win them it gives you an amazing advantage ’cause these are the teams, Colorado College and North Dakota, that are expected to compete for the title. But it’s a pipe dream right now.”
Minnesota (5-2-1, 4-1-1) will take on the WCHA’s second place team, No. 3 Colorado College (4-0-0, 4-0-0) this weekend at Mariucci.
This intriguing match-up pits the league’s No. 1 offense — the Tigers — against a Gophers team that’s been flexing their defensive muscles.
Colorado College has been scoring goals in bunches. The Tigers boast the conference’s two highest scorers in seniors Darren Clark and Brian Swanson.
“We like to be high scoring,” Tigers coach Don Lucia said. “But we like the other team to be low scoring, too, of course.”
The high-powered Tigers will have to counter a defense that’s come into its own recently. The Gophers have been downright stubborn, with their defensemen dominating the blue line and laying down pounding checks.
But Minnesota’s team of defensemen will have its hands full with Colorado.
“What we’re going to try is to be real physical on these guys,” defenseman Bill Kohn said. “They’ve got a lot of fast and small forwards, they’re real shifty with the puck and they make a lot of good plays.
“Their first line, with Swanson and Clark, plays a lot and anytime we get a body on them will help us.”
Along with their defensive obligations, the Gophers will also have to rely on their power play to keep rolling along.
“It just so happens that it’s the way it’s worked out so far,” junior Dave Spehar said. “Our power play has been together for two years now; it’s second nature for us.”
Health and consistency are two factors that often determine how far a team can go. So far, Minnesota has been very fortunate with both. But the Gophers will probably need a little more to hang with speedy Colorado College for 60 minutes.
“They’ve got ability up front to score,” Woog said. “The teams we’ve played before are good teams, but they didn’t have the firepower that Colorado College has.”
Although consistency wouldn’t look like a problem on the outside for the Tigers, who thumped Alaska-Anchorage 8-2 and 4-1 last weekend, Lucia would disagree.
With recent injuries and platooning sophomore Colin Zulianello and freshman Jeff Sanger in the goaltender spot, Lucia says he’s still searching for stability.
“We’ve got a lot of question marks going in,” Lucia said. “We won’t know our best lineup until Christmas time. We’re still in the experimenting mode.”
Colorado College is looking for someone to step up for them, something the Gophers will look to capitalize on.
It’s still early in the season, but a good start now can prevent the need for a desperate finish later on. And with conference favorite North Dakota lurking close behind, there’s little room for an off weekend.
“Historically, if you want to get a shot at a conference crown, you need a good start,” Lucia said. “You don’t want to find yourself behind the eight-ball early.”
If the Gophers plan on being serious players in the WCHA race, a good showing against the Tigers this weekend might be the start. The No. 2-ranked Sioux come to town next weekend.
“We want to see where we measure up,” Spehar said. “It’s no secret these guys have a great hockey team; we’ve got a lot of respect for them. So we’ve had to step up in practice if we’re going to match up Friday and Saturday.”