Gophers hope to shake cold start

Minnesota hopes to improve its 0-3-1 record with Alaska-Anchorage coming to town.

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Max Sanders

Heading into the season, the Gophers talked repeatedly of a challenging start to the year. With eight straight Western Collegiate Hockey Association games, including the first four against conference favorites North Dakota and Denver, the GopherâÄôs knew they would be tested early. So far the Gophers have not answered the call, going 0-3-1 after two weekends of play. This weekend, Minnesota plays host to Alaska-Anchorage (3-3-0), and for the first time all season the Gophers will head into the series unranked. Out of the U.S. College Hockey Online top-20 after being swept last weekend by Denver, the Gophers have struggled mightily to score early on, and head coach Don Lucia sees offensive production as a key to the ending the slump. âÄúWe just have to start scoring some goals. Once we start scoring some goals everything will work itself out,âÄù Lucia said. Putting players in position for quality scoring chances is another area of focus Lucia has stressed this week in practice. âÄúWeâÄôve thrown the puck away a few times in the offensive zone when we havenâÄôt needed to,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúTranslation from some of the things weâÄôre working on in practice has not happened in games yet. I think we need to use our defense more in the offensive zone than what we have.âÄù Scoring chances have been few and far between for LuciaâÄôs squad thus far. Shut out three of the past four games, the Gophers have struggled in all facets of the offensive game, but the lack of scoring has been extremely evident on special teams. Minnesota enters this weekend 0-20 on power plays. During film study this week, Lucia noticed a tendency for the power play unit to shoot too quickly, instead of setting up better scoring chances. âÄúThe thing thatâÄôs hurt us on the power play is just coming into the zone and not making good reads to set up,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôve had times where a guy crosses the blue line [and] just takes a shot on the goaltender, rather than getting it set up.âÄù Lucia noted that the quick shots and lack of setups during power play has infringed on his ability to evaluate the personnel on those units, so donâÄôt look for any big changes to the power play lines for this weekendâÄôs series. On the defensive end, the Gophers have maintained a two goalie system through two weekends, where junior Alex Kangas plays the opening game and sophomore Kent Patterson plays the second. Getting Patterson involved early in the season is something Lucia sees as a reward for the hard work Patterson displayed last year. âÄúWe made a decision as a staff before the year started that early in the season weâÄôre going to get [Patterson] some games,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúI think heâÄôs played well; I think Alex has played well. Goaltending has been, I think, one of the strongest suits to our team so far.âÄù While the season is still young, the Gophers already find themselves a full six points behind current-conference leader Colorado College , and Kangas acknowledged the team is starting to feel a sense of urgency to put an end to the current slide. âÄúItâÄôs a long year, but at some point we have to get things rolling here a little bit and start winning games,âÄù Kangas said. The Gophers are looking to rebound against an Alaska-Anchorage team it has dominated as of late. In the past 17 meetings between the two schools, Minnesota is 13-2-2, including a win and a tie last year . But the Seawolves will come into this weekendâÄôs series with some momentum. Led by junior goalie Bryce ChristiansonâÄôs 22 saves, Alaska-Anchorage pulled off a surprising victory last Saturday against now-No. 3 North Dakota 2-1, earning a split after getting shut out Friday 5-0. As the third-straight conference opponent to open the year, Lucia said he knows the Seawolves will be prepared for the Gophers on Friday. âÄúItâÄôs a WCHA team, and anybody can beat anyone else,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúThey are a good defensive team; they always have three guys back. There are not going to be a whole lot of shots on goal. The big thing for us is weâÄôve got to generate more scoring chances.âÄù Regarding injuries, Lucia said that senior forward Jay Barriball , who missed the second game of last weekendâÄôs series against Denver, will most likely be a game-time decision to play Friday. Sophomore defenseman Sam Lofquist , who missed the previous three games with a foot injury, is also a game-time decision. Due to the Gophers football game Saturday night, the second game between Minnesota and Alaska-Anchorage will be Sunday, Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. FridayâÄôs game will start as usual at 7 p.m.