Gophers grapple with Mavs this weekend

In a rematch of last yearâÄôs Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoff Series , the Minnesota menâÄôs hockey team will lock horns this weekend with the Mavericks of Minnesota State Mankato. And like last yearâÄôs three-game playoff series, this yearâÄôs regular season series could prove to be full of drama. Playing the equivalent of nearly four-and-a-half games over the weekend, both teamsâÄô playoff forecasts were changed when Minnesota came back after dropping game one of the series to win two straight games and reach the WCHA Final Five. Had the Gophers lost in Mankato, their season would have been over. Had Minnesota State won, the Mavericks likely would have made their second-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Instead, Minnesota State was beat out of the final at-large bid by Wisconsin, which actually had a losing record. âÄúBoth teams are going to be hungry,âÄù junior forward Jay Barriball said when asked of last seasonâÄôs implications. âÄúItâÄôs a big rivalry and itâÄôs going to be fun.âÄù But not that great of a rivalry until recently. The Mavericks 1-0 double overtime win on March 14 was only the teamâÄôs third win over Minnesota in history. But as last seasonâÄôs WCHA Coach of the Year Troy Jutting enters his ninth season as head coach, his team is narrowing the gap between themselves and the top conference teams. âÄúTheyâÄôre a great team; we knew that coming in. TheyâÄôre an older team; they have a lot of guys that are 22-23,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúWe knew that they were going to be tough after playing them last year. They didnâÄôt lose too many players.âÄù In fact the Mavericks only lost two notable players from last season âÄî Joel Hanson graduated, while Jon Kalinski left a year early to play for the Philadelphia FlyersâÄô affiliate in the American Hockey League. Minnesota, on the other hand lost talent in waves. Four of its top six scorers were lost to graduation, while team point leader Blake Wheeler left after the season for the NHL. Barriball was left as the teamâÄôs top returner after only scoring six goals last season , but through four games this season the junior and the rest of the upperclassmen havenâÄôt seen a drop in offensive production. Of the teamâÄôs 30 points this season, the junior class is responsible for 19; the GophersâÄô top four scorers all come from the class as well. âÄúPeople want to talk about the freshmen; I think itâÄôs the older guys that have really done a nice job,âÄù Gophers coach Don Lucia said. âÄúI felt since the year began in practice that the sophomores, juniors and seniors had all taken a step. I think weâÄôve been able to see this year that that has been the case.âÄù