Offense begins to find its way again in win

Freshman forward Kyle Okposo scored his first goal since Dec. 9 in the win.

Mark Remme

In comparison to its fiery start, the Minnesota men’s hockey team endured what might look like a rough stretch the past two weekends.

After all, the Gophers tore through the first half of their season, losing just once in 2006.

But after going blow-for-blow with two top-notch Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes in Wisconsin and Denver, Minnesota suffered more losses in a span of one week (two) than it had in the previous 13 (one).

Such setbacks are to be expected, but last weekend’s split at home ultimately showed signs of promise for Minnesota.

The series with the fifth-ranked Pioneers emphasized the resurgence of three aspects pivotal to the Gophers’ success down the stretch, and it began with a goal from a key freshman.

Though he contributed in other ways, including drawing two penalties against Wisconsin on Jan. 13 by beating the defense and forcing the Badgers to take him down, freshman forward Kyle Okposo struggled to improve on his 15 goals from the first half of the season.

That changed Saturday against Denver.

Okposo beat senior netminder Glenn Fisher glove side on a quick snapshot from the blue line 5:42 into the first period, giving the Gophers their first lead of the series.

It was Okposo’s first goal since Dec. 9 at Michigan Tech and, more importantly, it got Minnesota on the scoreboard after Fisher earned a shutout the night before.

Okposo’s contribution emphasizes the importance of the Gophers’ young talent. Minnesota relied on freshmen like Okposo and forward Jay Barriball to score early and often during the first half of the season.

Head coach Don Lucia said the learning curve for these young players happens quickly in conference play.

“They learn how hard you have to compete every night,” he said. “You have to fight for every inch of space that’s out there.”

While that’s important, veterans like senior defenseman Mike Vannelli realize it’s pivotal for older members of the team to relieve some of that scoring pressure from the underclassmen, another component missing in recent games.

He epitomized that notion with his first career hat trick in a Gophers uniform on Saturday.

“Obviously our freshmen have done a great job this year and done a lot of goal scoring,” Vannelli said. “But it’s unfair to put all the pressure on them to try and score goals week in and week out.”

Perhaps the biggest recent offensive absence in need of revival was on the power play.

The Gophers, who led the WCHA with a 24.5 percent power-play efficiency in early December, stumbled into Saturday’s game, scoring just once on their previous 23 opportunities.

That five-game stretch included a 0-for-17 showing in the past four contests.

Minnesota changed that Saturday against the Pioneers, going a respectable 2-for-7 on the man advantage, something Vannelli said he attributes to the strong cycling work of the forwards down low.

Vannelli said once the puck movement around the net gets the penalty-unit tired, it opens up passing and shooting lanes for defensemen at the point.

In the past two weekends that was not the case as the Gophers seemed to have lost their power-play edge.

Opponents continually blocked shots and killed off penalties in recent games, but Saturday’s performance gave hope to a unit that just works toward creating chances, not worrying about efficiency.

“We know we aren’t going to do great every weekend,” junior forward Ben Gordon said. “We’re just working hard and know we have to get goals on the power play – if they don’t come right away we have to keep working and they will come.”

Those chances will have to come, along with that senior leadership and freshman contribution if the Gophers hope to keep their dwindling five-point lead in the conference standings.