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Minnesota peaking at the right time on the rink

Minnesotas mens hockey team has lost one game since early December.

Coming into its weekend series at Mariucci Arena, there might not have been a hotter team in menís hockey than Denver.

When the series was over, it was pretty clear the title of hottest team belongs to Minnesota.

After Friday nightís 3-2 win over the Pioneers, there was a bounce in the Gophersí step. The team seemed to be exuding confidence. That confidence seemed well-founded the next night when Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead en route to a 5-1 sweep.

On Friday night, the Gophers were the better of two teams that seemed close to even. On Saturday night, it seemed like the teams didnít even belong in the same conference for stretches of time.

Thatís interesting, considering that coming into the weekend, Denver was one point ahead of Minnesota for first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Now that Minnesota is in first place ó ranked first in the nation and playing with a swagger ó it doesnít look like any team in the country can beat the Gophers right now.

ì(Minnesota) is playing extremely well,î Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. ìI think that this series really, probably gave them more confidence.î

Minnesota doesnít seem overconfident though.

ìWeíre going to take it game by game,î junior forward Danny Irmen said. ìAnd weíre just trying to set ourselves up for the end of the year.î

Setting themselves up for the end of the year is just what the Gophers have done.

Minnesota has lost only one game since being swept by Wisconsin in early December ó a 4-2 loss to North Dakota at Mariucci on Jan. 14.

Since the Badgersí sweep, the Gophers have reeled off impressive win after impressive win:

> A two-game sweep at North Dakota in December.

> A two-game sweep of Colorado College at Mariucci in January.

> A two-game sweep of then-first place Wisconsin in Madison the last weekend in January.

> Last weekend, the sweep of Denver.

But hearing Irmen tell it, the Gophers havenít even peaked yet.

ìWe feel weíre playing really good, but weíve gotta get more consistent,î he said after Saturdayís win. ìWeíll play really good one period and the next period kind of fall off a little bit. So we feel weíre playing pretty good, but at the same time, we know we can play better.î

And itís not just the standard athlete-speak. The team really can play more consistently.

From the time Minnesota took a three-goal lead at the end of the first to the end of the second period Saturday, the Gophers did play a little flatly. At the start of the game Friday, Minnesota also looked a step slow at the outset.

But even so, the Gophers swept a team that was in first place in arguably the toughest conference in college hockey.

When and if Minnesota does reach the level Irmen is talking about, Minnesota could be unbeatable. Or, they may already have reached that level.

ó Matt Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected].

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