Young and oft-injured, men’s hockey team getting better

Adam Fink

Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia paused for a moment before trying to sum up the past month of the Gophers season.

Since the holiday break, the sixth-ranked Gophers have a record of 3-2-1, including 1-2-1 in the WCHA.

Heading into the stretch run for the MacNaughton Cup, Lucia said the Gophers’ continual progression gives him the impression the team has learned from many of its mental mistakes.

“I am disappointed with our record overall,” the Gophers fourth-year coach said. “But considering the injuries and inconsistency we have battled through, I am surprised where we are.”

In addition, the Gophers (12-6-5, 7-4-3 WCHA) line-up will be full again by late February when Matt Koalska returns from hernia surgery.

And come March, Lucia believes the team will hit its peak. If, or when, the Gophers do reach their height of play, it will be due to the lessons learned in January.

For example, Minnesota let a two-goal lead slip away in a 4-3 loss to St. Cloud State on Jan. 3. One night later, Minnesota again let a two-goal lead vanish in the closing minutes of the 3-3 final.

“It’s disappointing when you let two games slip away like that,” Keith Ballard said at the time. “You just can’t do that.”

Against conference rival North Dakota one week later, Minnesota again faded down the stretch Friday night due to careless defensive turnovers and a lackluster effort.

But the Gophers’ most recent contest – the rematch with the Sioux on Jan. 11 – showed just how dangerous a defending national champion can be.

Minnesota’s top line of Koalska, Troy Riddle and Thomas Vanek tallied nine points, and the Gophers scored a short-handed goal. The third and fourth line played solid defensively and with a high level of energy.

“We are starting to find our roles,” alternate captain Paul Martin said after his team’s 6-3 win. “The team is skating together, and everyone knows what we need to do to win.

“And Travis is playing like the starting goaltender right now.”

Goalie Travis Weber has continued to impress and now has his saves percentage up to .906.

In addition, Weber has grown comfortable with his starting role and as the last line of defense for his team.

“Coach keeps challenging me more,” the sophomore backstop said. “I have noticed improvements in my game, and I think the guys are responding to me.”

Minnesota’s next conference foe is this weekend versus Minnesota State-Mankato. It also likely means the return of captain Grant Potulny.

The issues from the first half of the season – inexperience of the underclassmen, a goaltending battle and scores of injuries – are in the past.

Minnesota’s roster is starting to compete the way it was expected to earlier in the year, fueling optimism for a February schedule that includes conference-leading Colorado College and surprising Minnesota-Duluth.

“There are no more excuses to use as a crutch,” Lucia said. “We expect to be more competitive and get a consistent effort from each player.”

ï Two forwards are no longer with the Gophers. Junior Dan Welch was dismissed due to academic issues and Mike Erickson was sent to the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers so the sophomore could get more playing time.

Welch has likely used up his chances to come back to Minnesota, while Erickson might return next season, depending on his performance in Iowa.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]