Gophers prepare for No. 2 Denver

Minnesota begins its regular season final stretch against the Pioneers.

Hockey vs. North Dakota

Ian Larson

Hockey vs. North Dakota

Max Sanders

Playing a first-round home playoff series is considered a reward for a team that beats conference foes throughout the regular season on a consistent basis. If Don LuciaâÄôs squad hosts a playoff series at Mariucci Arena, no one will argue they didnâÄôt earn it. The Gophers menâÄôs hockey team, currently in a tie for seventh, concludes the season fighting for playoff seeding against four of the nationâÄôs premier hockey teams. This weekend, Minnesota travels to Denver to face the No. 2 Pioneers. The Gophers end the season playing the No.âÄôs 2, 3, 7 and 9 teams in the country, but Lucia said his team is focused only on the immediate task at hand, which is coming out of Magness Arena with crucial points. âÄúWe canâÄôt worry about whatâÄôs going to happen two weeks, three weeks down the line,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe just have to play the best that we can Friday night and then regroup and play the best that we can on Saturday.âÄù While Minnesota leads the all-time series with the Pioneers, Denver has dominated of late, going 7-1-1 over the previous nine matchups . The lone victory in that stretch came last year at Denver. The Gophers know that if they are to take a top-five spot and clinch home ice for the first round, they are going to have to start playing their best hockey of the season against a Denver team that currently sits just one point out of first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference standings. âÄúDenverâÄôs a good a team, in my opinion theyâÄôre the best team weâÄôve played this year,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe have to go out there and get some points this weekend.âÄù The key to Minnesota coming away with any points against such a potent team begins and ends in the net. Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie allowed five goals in the loss against the Gophers last year but has been lights out since. Cheverie has shut out Minnesota in the last three games, including consecutive 3-0 shutouts earlier this season. CheverieâÄôs hot play has not been limited to games against the Gophers. The junior ranks second in the nation both in goals against average (1.96) and save percentage (.935 ). Lucia knows that getting Cheverie out of his comfort zone is key to getting pucks in the back of the net. âÄúLike any good goaltender, you got to get him trying to move side to side,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúYouâÄôve got to get inside those [faceoff] dots; youâÄôve got to get some tip goals.âÄù Minnesota will welcome back one of its most potent scorers this weekend in Denver. Mike Hoeffel returned to practice this week after missing four games with mononucleosis. Although he will return to the lineup, Lucia cautioned that the junior is still not 100 percent healthy. âÄúIs he going to be like he was a month ago? No, but now heâÄôs got to play himself back into shape,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúNow itâÄôs a question of if he normally plays 20 minutes a game, can he play 18, can he play 15? WeâÄôll have to monitor that and make sure we check on his fatigue level as the game goes on, but the full week of practice is really going to help.âÄù In HoeffelâÄôs absence, junior transfer Jacob Cepis has filled the void. The winger already has 11 points coming on five goals and six assists, and though he didnâÄôt play the first series against Denver in October, he knows how crucial this weekend is to MinnesotaâÄôs hopes of hosting a first-round playoff series. âÄúItâÄôs almost like itâÄôs do or die with these points,âÄù Cepis said. âÄúWe want these points, and weâÄôre going to do anything to get them.âÄù Perhaps the most important predictor of this weekendâÄôs success or failures once again rests on the shoulders of GophersâÄô goalie Alex Kangas. Minnesota is 12-1-0 when opponents score fewer than two goals, and against a Denver team that has a stellar goalie, Lucia knows Kangas will have to deliver on his end. âÄúAlex has to play his best hockey of the season, or Kent [Patterson ], whoeverâÄôs in there,âÄù Lucia said. FridayâÄôs game will be played at 8:30 p.m., with SaturdayâÄôs tilt starting at 8 p.m.