Gophers just glad to skate away with four

Minnesota ended a three-game losing streak by sweeping Mankato 9-6 and 2-1.

by Ben Goessling

MANKATO, Minn. – It offered little reassurance that Minnesota’s men’s hockey team fixed all of the problems stemming from a three-game losing streak during winter break. And on a purely aesthetic scale, Minnesota’s weekend sweep of Minnesota State-Mankato didn’t score very high, either.

But four points in the WCHA standings, as coach Don Lucia is fond of saying, are more important than style points.

And though it didn’t completely right the ship, the Gophers (18-7-0, 11-5-0) are at least back on the winning track after outgunning the Mavericks 9-6 Friday at the Xcel Energy Center and turning away a furious third-period rally attempt in a 2-1

decision Saturday at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center.

“You can’t live in the past; enough’s enough,” said forward Danny Irmen, who bagged his first career hat trick Friday. “We’ve struggled, but that’s going to happen.”

The Mavericks (8-13-3, 5-12-1), who moved a home game Friday to St. Paul in hopes of selling the team to alumni living in the Twin Cities, were skewered for essentially giving the Gophers a home game in a building where they had won their last eight decisions.

All but three Gophers scored points and four recorded multipoint games. Minnesota shot a remarkable 22.5 percent for the game, including 5-for-13 in a second-period burst that spanned two Mankato goalies.

But the Mavericks hung around much longer than expected in front of a 50-50 crowd of 17,019, thanks to a battered and languid Gophers defense that offered goaltender Kellen Briggs little help. Briggs also wasn’t at his sharpest, cheating to the wrong side on several shots and allowing two third-period goals from the faceoff circles.

“It wasn’t Kellen’s finest hour,” Lucia said. “But it was an off-night for goalies. Nobody had skated in here (to practice).”

On Saturday, Lucia decided to give Briggs, who had played 21 consecutive games, the night off and replaced him with

backup Justin Johnson.

The move worked to perfection, as Johnson stopped a career-high 39 shots and Kris Chucko scored two goals to lift Minnesota out of a 1-0 hole.

“I think both teams got read the riot act (after Friday night) as far as defense goes,” Chucko said. “We knew it was going to be a tight one (Saturday).”

Minnesota passed North Dakota for third place in the WCHA standings and now faces two sweepable home series with Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth before a showdown Feb. 4-5 with first-place Wisconsin in Madison, Wis.

The Badgers only have one conference series between now and then, and the Gophers could make up a six-point deficit by sweeping the next three series.

Minnesota, however, also trails Colorado College by four points, having lost three of four against the top-ranked Tigers this year, including a Colorado College sweep Jan. 8-9 at Mariucci Arena.

Minnesota faces the easiest schedule of the three contenders down the stretch, and while the Gophers could still steal a WCHA title, it probably wouldn’t be a possibility without the weekend’s confidence-boosting sweep.

“A lot of the older guys had a little chip on their shoulder,” center Gino Guyer said. “We’d been struggling, and we needed to get out of it.”

Okposo verbals

The Gophers received a verbal commitment Saturday for the 2006-07 season from Kyle Okposo, a forward from the Faribault, Minn., Shattuck-St. Mary’s school.

Okposo, who turns 17 in April, is currently second on the team in goals with 31 and third in points with 55.

He is the fourth member of an impressive 2006 recruiting class that already includes three players from the U.S National Team Development Program: forward Peter Mueller (thought to be the top under-17 player in the country), forward Mike Carman and defenseman Erik Johnson.

“He’s a nice kid, and he’s going to be a good frickin’ player,” said J.P. Parise, Shattuck-St. Mary’s director of hockey. “The ‘U’ is going to be great for him. (Coach Don) Lucia’s got that team going all the time.”

Okposo’s parents both attended the University, and Parise said Okposo has appeared destined to play for the Gophers.

“I told him the best advice I could give was that he needs to visit other schools,” said Parise, whose son Zach Parise played at Shattuck and starred for North Dakota before leaving for the New Jersey Devils’ system.

“He could have gone to North Dakota, but deep inside, it was Minnesota.”