Minnesota, Denver in unfamiliar situation

by Aaron Kirscht

In any other season, the Gophers men’s hockey team would likely look at a series with the last-place team in the WCHA as a mere speed bump in the road to the postseason.
Not so fast. The Gophers themselves are in a tie for last place with Denver, this weekend’s opponent. And with the championship race at full speed, Minnesota is in no position to coast to the finish.
“There’s as much pressure playing to get out of last place as there is playing for first place,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “But we’ve got to throw that all aside. This is an individual game in a 16-game season and we’ve got to try to climb out of the damn thing. We don’t have too many weekends to waste.”
Minnesota and Denver are in the midst of some of the worst seasons in each of their respective histories. The Gophers’ struggles are well-documented, highlighted by a program-record nine-game losing streak from Nov. 8-Dec. 20.
Denver has just one win in its last 14 games, and the Pioneers’ 4-16 record equals the second-worst start in school history.
Like the Gophers, Denver has not played up to preseason expectations. Coach George Gwozdecky expected his defense and goaltending to be the Pioneers’ strengths, but they’ve often deteriorated into liabilities.
Sophomore goaltender Steve Wagner, Gwozdecky said, was expected to play at least 75 percent of games in goal. But a groin pull suffered during the Pioneers’ series with St. Cloud over Thanksgiving has limited his effectiveness.
That sent senior Ben Henrich between the pipes, where he’s allowed an average of 4.57 goals in 11 games, worst in the WCHA. On the other end of the rink, junior wing Paul Comrie — who led the Pioneers with 21 goals and 28 assists last season — is slightly off pace with 10 goals and 12 assists so far this season.
“You know when you step out on the golf course some days and you’re hitting the hell out of the ball but you can’t putt at all?” Gwozdecky said. “That’s what our team has been suffering through all year. One part of your game is functioning well but the other isn’t functioning at all.”
And as in golf, confidence has also been a factor. Denver is 0-9 in series openers this season, thanks in large part to a 61-38 scoring deficit in the first two periods this season.
“We need to get off to a better start,” Gwozdecky said. “When we come into the locker room after the first period down by a goal or two, that’s really hurt our confidence.
“We’ve got to take more pride in our defensive game. We’ve just got to get better.”
Woog sounded a similar tone about his team’s problems this season, many of which are the same: subpar goaltending, porous defense and prolonged scoring slumps from players who were expected to produce.
“Maybe it’s focus, maybe it’s concentration, maybe it’s luck,” Woog said. “But you’ve just got to find a way to get on a roll, where you can just relax and get comfortable again.”
This will be the Gophers’ first shot at WCHA competition since Dec. 19-20, when they were swept by St. Cloud. Six of Minnesota’s last eight games were outside the league. In that stretch, the Gophers posted a 3-5 record, with all three wins coming against teams with losing records.
With 16 WCHA games remaining, there’s still time for the Gophers to make a run for fifth place or better, which would give them a home series in the first round of the league playoffs. That’s the long-range goal, Woog said, but for the short-term he just wants to see a few more wins.
“It’s always tougher to make up ground in the second half,” he said, “because everyone kinds of evens out. The very best teams continue to get better, but so do the ones on the bottom.
“We’ve got a tough circumstance to take care of here, and nobody’s going to do it for us.”