Always-pesky Alaska brings top defense to town

Tim Nichols

The Gophers men’s hockey team is beginning to feel the heat of the playoff push.
The team had an impromptu hour-and-a-half players-only meeting before practice on Thursday. When asked about what topics were discussed in the meeting, junior winger Nate Miller would only grin and say, “Player stuff.”
If the Gophers had any internal problems, they should hope everything has been ironed out for this weekend when they take on a very poised, surprising Alaska-Anchorage squad.
“They’ve got a better ranking right now,” freshman Erik Wendell said. “But I think we have the better team.”
The Seawolves look like the Cinderella team of WCHA season thus far. But to Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous, this season is just another step in a very methodical plan for success.
It took Talafous four years to turn around Division III Wisconsin-River Falls from a bottom-feeder into the NCAA runner-up. Incidentally, they won the national championship the following year.
“They can’t get ahead of themselves,” Talafous said. “They realize who they are, and that they were picked ninth by all the writers. They understand that we have the least talent. We are just trying to build a team that the community can be proud of and that plays hard.”
They are either near or at the bottom of every individual or team offensive category, except for one — Freshman Steve Cygan leads the league in game-winning goals with five.
Alaska-Anchorage would rather lull you to sleep than skate circles around you. They have a tight defensive style that’s been labeled as slow and boring. But Talafous insists the Seawolves are not a one-sided team.
When asked if his team was primarily defensive, Talafous sounded almost offended and frustrated by the label.
“There is not a coach in the league that would say we are defensive,” Talafous said. “We all forecheck very hard. We’ve outshot most of our opponents. There is not a team here that can be successful if they don’t play good defense.”
But the simple truth is, Alaska-Anchorage isn’t breaking many stereotypes when its last game was the scourge of hockey — a scoreless tie.
Many of the Gophers, too, stopped short of acknowledging Alaska-Anchorage as a venerable scoring machine.
“They pride themselves in their defense,” sophomore Matt Leimbek said. “That’s how they win their ballgames.”
For a Gophers team that has been killed by opponents turning mistakes into odd-man rushes, the Seawolves don’t sound like the perfect cure for a squad that can’t score.
Alaska-Anchorage currently leads the league in team defense, coupled with the fact they are the least-penalized team in the WCHA.
Flash and speed isn’t going to beat this team, it’s going to take a consistently grinding effort. Fortunately for Minnesota, the Gophers’ third and fourth lines are their strong suit.
“We have to wear them down,” Nate Miller said. “They’re defensemen aren’t huge guys, they play solid hockey, but they’re not huge. If we work hard, keep pounding them down, sooner or later they’ll make a mistake.”
With a sweep this weekend, and a Colorado College sweep of Wisconsin, Minnesota would take over the all-important fifth-place position and stay in the hunt for home ice in the postseason.
That is, if the Gophers can find a rare hole in the Seawolves defense.
“Team defense and aggressive offense are secrets to success,” Talafous said. “We may not have the scorers, but you’ll always have a chance to win if you’ve got defense.”