With eyes on Final Five, Minnesota begins first round play

Mark Remme

Junior forward Ben Gordon’s hairdo was as painfully obvious as his words before practice on Wednesday.

“It’s playoff time, guys,” he announced while removing his hat.

His hair, sporting a bleach-blond style, looked similar to many of the Minnesota men’s hockey players.

An annual tradition to alter their hairdos as Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs begin this weekend, the Gophers brightly colored locks might be used to shed light on recent woes.

“Hopefully, it’ll go up a half a goal per game or so,” freshman center Kyle Okposo joked.

Minnesota begins its quest for a WCHA playoff title as the conference top-seed against 10th-seeded Alaska Anchorage during the WCHA’s best-of-three first round.

Games are scheduled for tonight and Saturday at 7:07 and a third 7:07 game Sunday, if necessary, all at Mariucci Arena.

After a weekend where emotions ran high Friday in lieu of clinching the regular season conference title, then dipped low as the Gophers were outplayed by Michigan Tech on Saturday, Minnesota was left 7-7-0 in their last 14 conference games.

The Gophers (26-8-3 overall, 18-7-3 WCHA) looked upbeat and ready for postseason play Wednesday, but looking prepared and being prepared are two different things.

Coach Don Lucia said he knows it.

“We know that if you don’t bring that emotion to the game it makes it very difficult to win,” Lucia said.

Much of that emotion must come from a talented yet young group of forwards if the team is going to be successful in the playoffs.

Experience proves crucial in playoff situations, and in order for Minnesota to advance to and compete in the WCHA Final Five next weekend, Okposo and his fellow freshmen need to make up for that with consistently productive playoff games.

The team relied on that offensive output from Okposo and freshman Jay Barriball all season long, and their results showed in the win column.

When Okposo scores at least one point in a Gophers game, Minnesota has an overpowering 20-4-2 record. Much of the same can be said for Barriball, as the team is 19-3-1 when he tallies at least one point.

“We just need to work hard and stick with it,” Okposo said. “Points are going to be hard to come by this time of year – you’ve gotta battle and go to the net.”

Okposo’s ability to generate points proved pivotal all season, but lately the type of scoring he does has changed.

Since linemate Tyler Hirsch was dismissed from the team Dec. 30, Okposo went from being the scoring threat to the playmaker.

In his first 18 games, Okposo tallied 15 goals and eight assists. In his past 15 contests; he’s mustered just two goals while earning 12 helpers.

Okposo said Hirsch’s presence is missed both in his abilities on the ice and his leadership.

“It’d be nice to have (Hirsch down the stretch), the way he moves the puck and how he’s been (through playoff runs before),” Okposo said. “He’s got a national championship under his belt, but we’ve got to take the hit and go on without him.”

Ready or not, the playoffs start today.

And these freshmen will get their first taste of collegiate postseason play while hosting the Seawolves (12-19-3, 8-19-1), a team who is 0-2-0 against the Gophers this season but has the first chance to knock off the league’s top-seeded team.

All hair superstitions aside, Okposo emphasized the importance of knowing every game could be the team’s last.

“We really stress what happened last year,” Okposo said. “(The Gophers) took Holy Cross lightly and they had three and half months to think about it.

“Obviously I wasn’t there, and none of the other freshmen were there, but I can’t even imagine what it was like and I just don’t want to experience it.”