Top line helps Gophers shake funk

by Aaron Kirscht

For the better part of the early season, nary a Gophers men’s hockey player could find the net with a compass and a map.
Goals were few and far between, and even though the team was playing fundamentally solid hockey, the rewards — goals, assists, wins, whatever — weren’t coming.
But after the last four-game stretch, worries over the Gophers dismal production might be fading.
Minnesota has won three of four, on the heels of a program-record, nine-game losing streak. The wins have been by a combined score of 16-8, and have boosted the Gophers’ record to 7-13 overall, 3-9 in the WCHA, with eight league series remaining.
To keep things in perspective, two of those wins came against Mankato State — a team in its first season in Division I — and the third came against Brown, which entered the Mariucci Classic with only two wins in 10 games. But for a Gophers team that badly needed a shot of confidence, a couple of wins over a pee-wee team from Ely would have been enough.
“We’re undefeated this year, anyway,” Gophers senior Casey Hankinson said.
The impetus behind the increased scoring output has been the play of Minnesota’s top line of Hankinson, Wyatt Smith and Dave Spehar. Together they’ve combined for 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in the last four games.
“I don’t know what it is,” Smith (11 goals, 12 assists this season) said. “The puck’s just finding the back of the net, and my linemates are doing a great job of finding me.
“We’re playing some fun hockey again. Hopefully we can just keep it going.”
Hankinson started the season in a severe funk, scoring only twice in Minnesota’s first 16 games. Since then, he’s scored five goals along with three assists.
“It’s nice,” Hankinson said. “You like to think you’re trying to score all the time, you keep doing the same things, and then you start scoring goals. The good thing is that the guys who are supposed to be scoring for us are getting some big goals.”

Up with the down time
The Gophers are off next weekend before resuming the stretch run of the WCHA schedule at home against Denver on Jan. 16-17.
This is the third bye week in little more than a month for Minnesota. But after playing five games in eight days, the Gophers are ready for another short vacation.
“I’d like to have reservations in the Marco Islands or wherever,” coach Doug Woog said, “but I don’t. That would make it a little better.
“We’ve had a lot of weekends off lately, but this is going to be the most cherished one, I think. We’ll get some guys back and some legs rested. It’s good for us.”
(For the record, Marco Island is just south of Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Temperatures there are expected to reach the lower 80s with showers expected for most of the week.)
After Saturday’s game, in which only nine forwards and five defensemen dressed were in uniform, Woog was asked if any of his players are complaining about a lack of playing time.
“No,” Woog said, ever the jokester. “In fact, I think guys are taking penalties on purpose. You can quote me on that.”

No hard feelings
Sweep or no, it’s obvious that Mankato State’s Don Brose isn’t about to stop rooting for the Gophers. Once the games were over, Brose switched back into fan mode.
“The good side is that Minnesota is back,” Brose said. “They got a sweep and now they get a week of rest and maybe they’ll start to roll.
“I’m not happy that we were swept, but I don’t think anyone really expected us to get to Minnesota, and I think we gave a very credible performance.”

ù Saturday’s win over Mankato State, was the first time in nine games this season that the Gophers won after their opponent scored first.
ù Smith had six multiple-point games last season. So far this season, he has seven. He now leads the team in goals (11), assists (12) and multiple-point games.
In his last 39 games, Smith has 23 goals and 23 assists for 46 points.