WCHA playoffs open at Mariucci Arena against Anchorage

by Chris Lempesis

For Minnesota’s men’s hockey team, it’s time to put the razors away and start letting those beards grow.

In other words, it’s playoff time – the time of year when hockey players, long known for their superstitions, stop shaving and start up again only when their team is done for the year, either by way of elimination or a championship.

The Gophers start what they hope to be a long period of on-ice success and facial hair growth as they host Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs this weekend. Game times for the best-of-three series are set for 7:07 p.m. Friday, Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday at Mariucci Arena.

Sophomore forward Evan Kaufmann said Wednesday he might shave “once or twice” more before Friday’s game.

“If you look at it, it’ll be such a long period of time to have (a beard), it’s going to be tough,” Kaufmann said with a laugh. “I suppose some guys will keep it. I might shave before we start the games this weekend and then let ‘er go.”

While Kaufmann’s shaving habits for the rest of the week are unknown, what is certain is that top-ranked Minnesota (25-6-5, 20-5-3 WCHA) is quite familiar with this weekend’s opponent.

The Gophers already have faced off with the 10th-seeded Seawolves (6-25-3, 4-21-3 WCHA) four times this season, winning all four contests.

Minnesota swept Anchorage by scores of 9-0 and 4-3 at Mariucci in mid-November and 4-3 and 4-0 counts in Anchorage, Alaska, late last month.

“There’s nothing much to learn (about them) that we don’t already know,” Kaufmann said. “Everything we expect we’re going to see.”

What the Gophers are going to see, according to junior forward Danny Irmen, is a physical team with strong goaltending – No. 1 goalie Nathan Lawson, who missed the series last month, is expected to be back – that will play like it has nothing to lose.

“They just go out there, work hard and make things happen,” Irmen said. “So we’ve definitely got to have our best weekend of the year this weekend.”

As for how Minnesota will go about doing that, the team said it has to continue its strong defensive zone play and spring offense from it, specifically a strong offense that gets to the front of the net for screens and rebounds, something it has done well during its current hot streak (18-1-1 in its past 20, 11-0-1 in its past 12).

But more than anything, the Gophers know they have to match the Seawolves’ intensity.

“I think we’ve proven we’re a better team (than Anchorage),” coach Don Lucia said. “But that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. You have to go out and we have to make sure we work, our work ethic matches Anchorage’s work ethic, and then hopefully our talent will take over.”

Talent and hustle will have to come together for Minnesota this weekend because the Seawolves – a team with no shot to make the NCAA Tournament outside of winning the WCHA playoffs – won’t be making the 3,200-mile trip to have their season ended quietly.

But, if the Gophers can do just that, it will give some of their more facial hair-impaired players, like Irmen, a chance to catch up to the rest.

“I started (growing) mine about two months ago,” Irmen said, laughing. “It’s tough for me to grow a beard. So, we’ll see if anything happens.”

Chucko out for series

On Wednesday Lucia said sophomore forward Kris Chucko will not play in this weekend’s series.

Chucko has missed Minnesota’s past two series with an ankle sprain suffered Feb. 18 against Denver.

Lucia said there is no timetable yet for Chucko’s return.