Weber leading Gophers surge into winter break

Adam Fink

Travis Weber was the last player on the ice Monday night for pre-game warm-ups, following behind the rest of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

It marked one of the first times in the past three weeks the sophomore goaltender hasn’t been leading the charge for 10th-ranked Minnesota.

Heading into a 17-day hiatus, the Gophers (9-4-4, 6-2-2 WCHA) need to look no further than Weber to explain their recent climb in the conference standings and optimism for the second half of the season.

“It all starts with the goalie,” Weber said. “Strong goaltending contributes to team confidence, and there isn’t as much reliance on scoring.”

Minnesota is 4-1-2 in its past seven games – all starts by Weber. The Gophers have only scored 18 goals during the same span.

During the stretch, Weber has only allowed an average of 1.96 goals per game and has put up a sterling .927 saves percentage.

In addition, the Gophers surge has propelled them to third in the conference standings with 14 points. Minnesota was in sixth place only 21 days ago.

“As Travis’ play has improved, the team has improved,” coach Don Lucia said after Saturday’s win at Wisconsin.

The optimism for a second half of the season filled with more consistency doesn’t just emanate from goaltending.

Senior Matt DeMarchi – known for his rugged defensive play – has scored four goals this season, tying a season high he set three years ago.

Lucia said DeMarchi’s play the past month has been in keeping with the coaching staffs’ expectation for him since day one.

“I have always known I had the skills,” DeMarchi said after his game-winning goal last Saturday against Wisconsin. “It’s about adjusting to a different role.”

DeMarchi represents the veteran players beginning to understand their new roles on a young Gophers squad. For many of the freshmen, it’s not about where they fit in on the ice but feeling comfortable at the collegiate level.

Rookie Chris Harrington first noticed a difference in the Dec. 1 game against Michigan. During the 3-1 loss to the Wolverines, Harrington said he finally felt comfortable with his linemates.

“We are still learning the ropes,” the defenseman said. “I feel our entire group is finally coming together.”

All of this was highlighted in last weekend’s sweep at Wisconsin.

Weber made numerous clutch saves throughout the weekend. Late in Saturday’s 3-2 win, Weber faced an odd-man rush but challenged the shooter and forced an off-target shot.

Weber’s weekend – including his first career shutout Friday night – resulted in the Hibbing, Minn., native earning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

Rookies Harrington, Gino Guyer and Thomas Vanek all scored during the series while veterans DeMarchi and Dan Welch both added goals. As a result, the Gophers put together their most impressive offensive, defensive and goaltending display of the season.

“That was a defining moment for this team,” junior Paul Martin said. “We were on the road, playing one of our big rivals, and we sweep in a place we hadn’t (since 1998).”

The Gophers improved play is coming at an important time. Early January features a home-and-home series with St. Cloud State. A week later (Jan. 10-11), the Gophers face one of their biggest challenges of the season when North Dakota visits Mariucci Arena.

Both teams are ranked in the top four in WCHA scoring – the Huskies are second and the Sioux are fourth.

But Weber’s play has Minnesota’s confidence level reaching its highest point of the season.

“When I am comfortable, my teammates seem comfortable,” Weber said. “Our group of individuals is coming together as a team and players are stepping up.”

And it all is starting with the man in goal.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes

comments at [email protected]