Sweep a must for slumping men’s hockey program

by Adam Fink

Alternate men’s hockey captain Paul Martin didn’t hesitate to answer when asked to describe his expectations for this weekend’s series with Michigan Tech.

“We need a sweep,” Martin said. “There is always talk about finishing the season strong, but right now we need some points in the conference.”

This weekend is pivotal for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team. After earning one point last weekend at home against conference-leading Colorado College, the ninth-ranked Gophers (5-3-3, 2-2-2 WCHA) sit in fifth place with six points.

With the eighth-place Huskies (1-5-3, 0-4-2) coming to Minneapolis, the Gophers see this weekend as a golden opportunity to gain ground.

In addition, after four days of practice, which some players called one of the best weeks this season, Minnesota feels it can restore some confidence in itself after going 1-2-1 over its past four games.

The team practiced hard early in the week. By midweek, the Gophers players said they were loose and relaxed. For coach Don Lucia, this translates to positive things.

“We worked hard this week to get the smiles back on their faces,” Lucia said. “The team has new energy. With only four conference games (before January) left, every game is important for us to get points.”

One advantage for Minnesota, and especially the freshmen, is familiarity with Michigan Tech.

The Gophers left Houghton, Mich., just under a month ago with three points (a win and a tie) but gained an idea of what to expect.

“It was our first conference series, and they caught us a little off guard,” rookie Tyler Hirsch said. “We have a better idea of their strengths, and ours too. One thing we need to do is use our speed to our advantage.”

Minnesota also plans to make other noticeable adjustments, such as stronger team defense, improved penalty killing and holding its checks longer.

Adjustments and familiarity look nice in practice and on paper, but only wins will determine where Minnesota stands before Thanksgiving break.

“We need two wins,” Hirsch said. “Anything else isn’t cutting it.”

The puck is dropped at 7:05 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Starting goaltender?

eleven games haven’t been enough to determine the top goaltender for the Gophers.

Sophomores Justin Johnson (3-1-2) and Travis Weber (2-2-1) have alternated starts this season with mixed results.

Johnson has a saves percentage of .866 while Weber’s is at .886.

“Both have their good and bad moments,” Lucia said. “They have both progressed at the same rate, so it’s hard to distinguish one.

“One thing they need to both improve on is consistency.”

For the series with the Huskies, Lucia said he will likely alternate starting Johnson and Weber.

With the similar numbers, how is the decision on the starter made?

“Some of it is who I feel is going to have the hot hand for us,” Lucia said. “I also take into effect practice, history with our opponent and just my opinion.”