Nearly unbeatable at home in playoffs, Minnesota hosts Anchorage

The Gophers are 26-1 at Mariucci Arena in the WCHA tourney.

by Austin Cumblad

MinnesotaâÄôs formidability at Mariucci Arena during the regular season has eroded in recent years, from a home record north of .700 every season between 2000 and 2006, to barely above .500 (10-9-1 and 9-8-3) the past two.

But during the WCHA playoffs, Mariucci remains a nightmarish place for visitors.

The Gophers (15-12-5, 12-10-4 WCHA) are 26-1 all-time at Mariucci in conference playoff games and have never lost a first-round series there. Their lone loss: in 2007, 2-1 in overtime to Alaska Anchorage.

And, wouldnâÄôt you know it, the Seawolves (12-17-3, 10-14-2) are back for the first round of this yearâÄôs WCHA playoffs. Minnesota and Alaska Anchorage split the regular season series, also played at Mariucci, in late January. Both teams have played well since âÄî the Seawolves secured the eight seed with a sweep of Minnesota State last weekend, and the Gophers are on a seven-game unbeaten streak.

âÄúThe guys feel good about themselves,âÄù head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday before practice. âÄúWeâÄôve been through a lot through the course of the season, whether itâÄôs ups and downs from winning and losing or ups and downs from guys being injured.âÄù

The wins have finally started flowing âÄî seven games is MinnesotaâÄôs longest unbeaten streak of the season by a wide margin âÄî but injury troubles continue. Juniors Taylor Matson and Aaron Ness left FridayâÄôs game at Bemidji State with injuries, did not play Saturday and as of Wednesday are day-to-day, Lucia said, adding that Ness is further along in his recovery than Matson.

Purely in terms of personnel, Ness is probably more critical to the GophersâÄô lineup. Without him Saturday against the Beavers, half of MinnesotaâÄôs defense was freshmen, including Nate Schmidt and Justin Holl, who have played only intermittently this season.

MatsonâÄôs absence was mitigated by the return of senior captain Jay Barriball, who missed the six games prior to Bemidji with a lower-body injury but had four assists against the Beavers. MinnesotaâÄôs top three lines are still relatively balanced without Matson.

âÄúI was happy,âÄù Lucia said of the Gophers play against Bemidji State. âÄúWe were a little bit shorthanded on Saturday night, and we were able to come back from a deficit on the road and win an overtime game, which we hadnâÄôt in awhile.âÄù

Thanks to senior Mike HoeffelâÄôs game-tying goal late in the third period and freshman Nick BjugstadâÄôs winner 20 seconds into overtime, the Gophers won their first overtime game since Jan. 3, 2009 and for the first time when trailing after two periods since Jan. 2, 2010.

âÄúItâÄôs about time we won one of those,âÄù Barriball said. âÄúIt seems like IâÄôve been in tons of them here over the last few years. It was good for us, it showed that we can have a comeback win and we can win one of those tough, muck and grime kind of games.âÄù

BjugstadâÄôs three goal, one assist weekend earned him his second consecutive WCHA Rookie of the Week. With Minnesota in need of a deep playoff run to make the NCAA tournament, continued scoring from Bjugstad will be important.

âÄúThe way heâÄôs playing, his production level, I donâÄôt think itâÄôs a coincidence that weâÄôre scoring more as a team as heâÄôs scoring more,âÄù Lucia said.

The Gophers are currently tied for 18th in the Pairwise rankings, which determine NCAA tournament at-large berths. A WCHA championship would mean an automatic spot, but barring that, Minnesota likely needs to climb into the top 14 to earn a bid.

âÄúIf we donâÄôt win this weekend, our seasonâÄôs over,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúEvery game at this point in time is critical.âÄù