Gophs Show-case for No. 1

Minnesota is in line for a top ranking after sweeping the College Hockey Showcase.

Ben Goessling

Statement? You want a statement?

As statements go, this was about as loud as Jack Nicholson showing up on the red carpet in an outfit borrowed from Jennifer Lopez.

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team, thought to be an also-ran in the WCHA and national title pictures at the beginning of the year, asserted itself about as strongly as a team could over the weekend.

The Gophers thumped top-ranked Michigan 5-1 on Friday before walking all over Michigan State 5-0 on Saturday in the College Hockey Showcase at Mariucci Arena.

After second-ranked Wisconsin lost 4-0 to the Spartans on Friday – only to take out Michigan 3-1 in a No. 1-versus-No. 2 matchup that morphed into a pair of teams trying to salvage a lost weekend – it’s safe to assume Minnesota (10-3-0, 6-2-0 WCHA) will be the top-ranked team in the country when the new U.S. College Hockey Online poll comes out today.

“We’re playing really well right now,” goaltender Kellen Briggs said. “We’re getting (production) from everywhere. I don’t know if it’s official, but if we’re No. 1, that’s exciting. Everybody will be gunning for us, but that’s fine.”

Minnesota, who most figured would have its hands full Friday facing Michigan (9-4-1) without forward Barry Tallackson, got two goals in the game’s first 3:38 from Ryan Potulny and used an ensemble cast to build its winning margin by the end of the second period.

Wolverines goalie Al Montoya, a first-round pick of the New York Rangers in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, was benched by the start of the third period.

The Gophers did the same thing to Spartans (6-7-1) netminder Dominic Vicari on Saturday, forcing Michigan State coach Rick Comley to insert backup Matt Migliaccio after Potulny’s goal made it 5-0 with 10:53 left in the second period.

Minnesota cruised through the third period, cementing its second-straight College Hockey Showcase sweep, extending a school-record 17-game home winning streak and leaving Comley shaking his head.

“I thought the only chance we had was to score first,” he said. “In this building, they’re the No. 1 team in the country. If I play them again, I don’t want it to be here.”

Briggs recorded what he called the easiest shutout of his career, facing just 23 shots Saturday, including only five in the third period. In fact, the closest he might have been to losing the shutout was when the game was scoreless in the first period.

Michigan State’s Tommy Goebel raced in on a breakaway and looked to have a clear shot at Briggs when defenseman Nate Hagemo raced in from out of nowhere to knock the puck away.

“My God, he looked like a roadrunner,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

That characterization could have applied to the entire team Friday, as Minnesota continually beat Michigan to loose pucks and rode a tidal wave of momentum to a four-goal lead in the first 13 minutes.

Michigan notched just 24 shots, stifled by a defense looking to redeem itself after Denver surged for seven third-period goals in last weekend’s split.

“Our young defensemen played much better,” Lucia said. “(Mike) Vannelli really rebounded, and everybody had a much better game than last weekend.”

Lucia, who said he doesn’t vote in the polls and couldn’t care less about the top spot, immediately shifted talk to Minnesota’s upcoming road series at fifth-ranked Colorado College, calling the Tigers “maybe the best team we’ve seen all year.”

That was the same distinction he gave Michigan last week.

Lucia might prefer diplomacy over audacity, but it’s pretty hard to deny the message sent by a 10-1 margin of victory for the weekend.

And as for next weekend?

“Bring ’em on,” Potulny said.

Yep, the statement came through loud and clear.