sweeps, but gains no ground

Aaron Kirscht

Start with figure skating, then throw out the sequined outfits, the triple lutzes and the teary adolescents, and there you have it: This weekend in Gophers men’s hockey.
Minnesota’s opponent, Alaska-Anchorage, plays an agonizingly deliberate defensive game. Skate around in circles. Hold the puck. For those scoring at home, it’s a style deserving of high marks on technique and low on artistry.
Still, Minnesota (14-18 overall, 10-14 in the WCHA) earned a 3-0, 4-2 sweep, something coach Doug Woog and the Gophers can’t criticize. The wins came against a team that Minnesota — season-long struggles or not — should have beaten, and the Gophers are in no position to argue over style points.
“It may not have been an entertaining game for some people,” Woog said, “but I thought we made some good plays and the goaltender made some good saves.”
The Seawolves (6-22-4, 5-18-3) do make a game seem as though it’s being played in a pool of slush, like the water streaming out of the Zamboni had been overheated.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” said junior forward Wyatt Smith, who had two goals and an assist over the weekend. “It’s no fun not scoring goals, but I think we did a good job of playing through it and sticking with the game plan.”
The Gophers’ strategy in this series was to avoid the sloppy play on which the Seawolves feed — cross-ice passes, holes in the defense and the like. Minnesota did that, then turned the tables on Alaska-Anchorage, outplaying the Seawolves in the patience game and jumping on their mistakes.
Alaska-Anchorage is at its best in a tight game, when it can concentrate on clamping down on an opponent rather than charging the net in search of offensive opportunities.
But the Gophers limited the Seawolves in that department, as well, scoring in the first period of both games and forcing Alaska-Anchorage to play a style of hockey with which it is unfamiliar: offensive.
On Sunday, the Seawolves did show occasional flashes of competence in the offensive zone. Minnesota scored a pair of goals 16 seconds apart midway through the first period, only to watch in awe as Alaska-Anchorage countered with two of its own to tie the game just more than three minutes later.
But the Gophers’ Dave Spehar backhanded in the game-winner with less than five minutes remaining in the period, allowing fans in attendance to sing the Minnesota rouser, clap their hands for a while and go back to their evening naps.
Neither team scored a goal in the second period of either game. That played into Alaska-Anchorage’s strategy, but forced fans to forego that bag of mini-donuts for a No-Doz-Jolt cocktail.
“It’s good playoff-type hockey for us,” junior forward Reggie Berg said, “as far as not getting a lot of offensive opportunities and having big scoring games.”
Uneventful as it was, the sweep was as convincing as it was necessary. Minnesota has only four games to play, three of which are on the road (at Colorado College this weekend, and the first half of a home-and-home at St. Cloud in two weeks). The Gophers are 9-1 at home in the New Year, but haven’t won on the road since a 4-2 win at Wisconsin on Nov. 7.
The Gophers closed the gap between themselves and sixth-place Michigan Tech to one point, but they are four points behind fifth-place Minnesota-Duluth, which was idle over the weekend.
A Minnesota sweep at Colorado College this weekend, coupled with a North Dakota sweep of Minnesota-Duluth, would propel the Gophers into a tie for fifth place with the Bulldogs. Minnesota owns the tiebreaker advantage over Minnesota-Duluth, on the strength of its 3-1 season-series win, which would give the home ice nod to the Gophers in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in two weeks.
“If we can get some help along the way, great,” Berg said. “But if we don’t keep up our end of the deal, it doesn’t really matter.”

SCORING SUMMARIES

FRIDAY’S GAME
Al-Anchorage 0 0 0 — 0
Gophers 1 0 2 — 3
FIRST PERIOD: Min — Godbout (unassisted), 10:48.
SECOND PERIOD: No scoring.
THIRD PERIOD: Min — Smith (Senden, Mills), 7:20. Min — Smith (Kraft), 11:16.

SATURDAY’S GAME
Al-Anchorage 2 0 0 — 2
Gophers 3 0 1 — 4
FIRST PERIOD: Min — Kraft (Lyons, Smith), PPG 9:28. Min — Senden (Berg, Westrum), 9:44. UAA — Read (McCann, Malin), PPG 12:04. UAA — Edwards (Douglas), 13:03. Min — Spehar (Berg), 15:49.
SECOND PERIOD: No scoring.
THIRD PERIOD: Minn — Berg (unassisted), ENG 19:43.