Gophers set for exhibition with Latvian team

by Lou Raguse

Last weekend’s men’s hockey series at Alaska-Anchorage showcased two distinctly different Minnesota teams.

Friday night, the Gophers came out of the gates on fire, going three-for-three on the power play and winning 4-0. On Saturday, however, costly defensive mistakes and mental breakdowns tripped up Minnesota as it fell 6-4.

Now at home, with fall semester wrapping up and nearly a month break from league games, the Gophers (7-8-1, 4-7-1 WCHA) hope to alleviate some of the mental stresses when they face HC Riga 2000, one of the top hockey clubs from Latvia, in an exhibition game tonight at Mariucci Arena.

HC Riga 2000 is a diverse team, with players ranging from ages 15-31. The team is in the middle of a three-game trip through the WCHA, losing 3-2 to Wisconsin on Tuesday night. HC Riga 2000 will play Minnesota-Duluth this Monday.

Minnesota coach Don Lucia plans to use some different players in the exhibition to give game experience to those who have recently received limited ice time. Since the Gophers have started playing more consistently, Lucia has used similar lineups each game.

But although Minnesota’s play on Saturday offered a flashback to the team’s early-season struggles, Lucia said there is nothing specific the team needs to shore up.

“We’re not worried so much about tightening up as just letting guys go out and get a game under their belt between now and next weekend,” Lucia said.

Next weekend is the annual Doge Holiday Classic, with Minnesota playing Princeton on Dec. 20 and the championship Dec. 21.

Tonight, goaltender Justin Johnson will see his first start in the net since Nov. 21 when Minnesota beat Michigan Tech 6-2. Defenseman Keith Ballard will see limited shifts as the Gophers can dress 22 players for the exhibition, giving the blue-liners a chance to redeem themselves from their disappointing performances Saturday.

“I think they’d like to rebound a little bit, because I thought collectively they did not play very well on Saturday,” Lucia said.

Ballard took a lot of responsibility for the Gophers’ poor defensive play. Although the game was a step back for the team, Ballard looks at it as a reminder of what can happen when Minnesota takes a night off on the ice.

Despite the exhibition game not counting toward the season record, Ballard said, the Gophers still need to win.

“We’re not in the same position we have been in past years,” Ballard said. “We’re not dominating and we don’t have a solid record, so we can’t look to just have a good time; we have to play to win.”

Forward Thomas Vanek and defenseman P.J. Atherton will both sit out the exhibition, each recovering from minor injuries suffered last weekend.

Lucia hopes Vanek will be healed in time for the Dodge Holiday Classic, but the sophomore will also miss the Jan. 2-3 series at home against Boston University, as he is scheduled to skate for his home country of Austria in the World Junior Tournament.

With the semester wrapping up, the Gophers, like most college students, are looking forward to making it through finals week and being able to relax.

“It’s been a mental struggle,” sophomore Tyler Hirsch said. “Having this break without league games and the stresses of the traveling we’ve been doing, and getting school over with, will help us focus in on hockey for the next month.”