Ugly sweep puts U in second

Michael Rand

On Saturday night, about 20 minutes after the Gophers hockey team wrapped up a sweep of Northern Michigan with a 2-1 win, Minnesota players began filtering out of the locker room wearing their usual dress pants, shirts and ties.
The players’ attire may have accurately portrayed their mood after gaining four points over the weekend and moving into sole possession of second place in the WCHA. But if the Gophers players wanted their clothes to reflect the way they played in the wins, ripped jeans and paint-stained shirts might have been more appropriate.
The Gophers’ 4-3 and 2-1 wins over the ninth-place Wildcats at Mariucci Arena were a combined 120 minutes of sheer ugliness. Nonetheless, there is no U’ column in the standings. And after being embarrassed the previous weekend at North Dakota, Minnesota will fill the W’ column by whatever means necessary.
“It’s better to play average and win than to play great and lose,” Gophers senior Dan Hendrickson said.
Minnesota (20-10, 17-9 in the WCHA) now has 34 points, three fewer than league-leading North Dakota, which swept Michigan Tech this weekend. Colorado College and Wisconsin, which entered the weekend tied with the Gophers, split a series this weekend and are now five points behind UND and two behind Minnesota.
With six games remaining, a WCHA title is still a possibility for the Gophers. But unlike this weekend’s opponent, all of Minnesota’s next three challengers — Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College and Wisconsin — have winning records.
Gophers coach Doug Woog seemed to be more relieved than anything to come out of the Northern Michigan series with four points.
“I’m glad we didn’t fumble these away,” he said.
The Gophers controlled play for almost all of Saturday’s game, but sharp goaltending by Northern Michigan’s Dieter Kochan kept the game close.
Goals by Ryan Kraft in the first and second period staked the Gophers to a 2-0 lead, but a goal by the Wildcats’ Darcy Dallas with 12 minutes left in the game created some tension.
Two minutes later, a Northern Michigan shot clanged the goalpost. After that, goalie Steve DeBus and the Gophers defense snuffed out the Wildcats’ rally.
Contrary to Saturday’s more balanced attack, Friday’s game was all or nothing for the Gophers.
Minnesota raced out to a 3-0 lead halfway through the first period Friday night and coasted into the first intermission ahead by the same score. But it was obvious that they had lost some of their edge.
Two Northern Michigan goals in the second period made the score 3-2. Suddenly, the Gophers were in danger of losing to a team they swept last season at Mariucci Arena by a combined score of 17-0.
“We thought it was going to be a cakewalk,” defenseman Brian LaFleur said. “That was the attitude I saw.”
A window-rattling pep talk from associate head coach Mike Guentzel between the second and third periods didn’t seem to help much, but Bill Kohn’s power play goal less than three minutes into the final period was enough to offset a late goal by the Wildcats.
Woog said he was happier with the Gophers’ overall effort Saturday night.
“We had much better scoring chances, and we were far more consistent,” he said. “We worked hard. That was more of the effort I was looking for.”
Still, players and coaches know the team has to elevate its performance a few more notches heading into the final weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.
The Gophers won the two games they should have won this weekend, a trademark of this year’s team. Minnesota is now 9-1 against Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, the bottom three teams in the WCHA. Against the rest of the league, however, Minnesota is just 8-8.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten to the level we need to be a championship team,” Kraft said.

Notes: Defenseman Ben Clymer missed both games this weekend with an inner-ear infection.

Northern Michigan 0 2 1 — 3
Gophers 3 0 1 — 4

First Period: Min — Crowley 5 (Kraft), :25. Min — Kraft 15 (Crowley, LaFleur), 3:14. Min — Spehar 11 (Crowley, Kohn) PPG, 7:46.
Second Period: NMU — Sheptak 4 (Coyle, Janicki) PPG, 3:19. NMU — Smith 9 (Coyle, Sheptak), 18:14.
Third Period: Min — Kohn 5 (Kraft) PPG, 2:58. NMU — Dallas 3 (Ruff), 18:24.

Northern Michigan 0 0 1 — 1
Gophers 1 1 0 — 2

First Period: Min — Kraft 16 (LaFleur, Smith) PPG, 15:28.
Second Period: Min — Kraft 17 (Hankinson, Crowley), 19:41.
Third Period: NMU — Sheptak 5 (Smith, Dallas), 7:57.