Fresh(men)-faced team settles into roles

Minnesota’s lines are beginning to solidify, and the freshmen are finding their places.

Ben Goessling

After a three-week stretch in which it has traveled more than 2,000 miles and played a single home game that wasn’t really at home, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team is, surprisingly, starting to feel comfortable with itself.

The Gophers practiced with the same lines Tuesday and Wednesday that they used against North Dakota over the weekend, meaning coach Don Lucia has found some pairings that are clicking.

“It’s important to get some other guys in the lineup, but I think there will be some continuity with the lines, at least on Friday,” Lucia said.

The sixth-ranked Gophers (3-2-0, 1-1-0 WCHA) carry 10 freshmen, five of whom played in the split with the fourth-ranked Sioux in Grand Forks, N.D.

But at Ralph Engelstad Arena – where North Dakota has lost just six times in the last two years – first-year players Kris Chucko and Alex Goligoski made a big first impression in their first WCHA games.

Goligoski tallied three assists last weekend, including two in Saturday’s 6-0 win. He leads all Gophers defensemen and ranks fourth on the team with five points this season.

Lucia was careful in his praise of the Grand Rapids, Minn., native but hinted Goligoski could develop into the same kind of force as former blueliners Jordan Leopold and Keith Ballard on the power play.

“We think he’s got that potential, but he’s got a lot of hard work in front of him to get there,” Lucia said.

Chucko had an assist Saturday night and topped the team in scoring chances for the weekend.

While Minnesota’s skaters figure to see an infusion of youth, the story between the pipes is different.

For the first time in three years, there won’t be an early-season position battle at goaltender, and it doesn’t look likely senior Justin Johnson or freshman Brent Solei will see any time this weekend against Minnesota State-Mankato.

Lucia said starter Kellen Briggs will play both games this weekend and probably won’t see a break until well into December.

Minnesota has the weekend off Nov. 13 – Nov. 14, and because of the scheduling break, the Gophers will likely ride Briggs for the next several weekends.

“It’s a position I’m very comfortable with,” Briggs said. “I can focus and work on areas of my game instead of having to play my best and worry (about keeping the job).”

Minnesota’s one home game so far this season was the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game against Denver at the Xcel Energy Center. And while the Gophers aren’t complaining about a chance to play in front of 17,000 people, team members said they’re glad to be spending three of the next four weekends at Mariucci Arena.

“The younger guys will be a lot more comfortable,” forward Ryan Potulny said. “I think at the X(cel Center), they were a little surprised, but it’s always good to be at home. Things are starting to shake themselves out.”