Shades of ’97 from U hockey, hoops

Aaron Kirscht

This was no Thrilla in Manila, no Rumble in the Jungle. No butterflies were afloat and no bees were a-stinging.
But the Gophers men’s hockey team did play a decent Muhammad Ali to Wisconsin’s Joe Frazier this weekend, pinning the Badgers in the corner and landing two stunning, solid shots on the chin.
Minnesota (12-16 overall, 8-12 in the WCHA) toppled first-place Wisconsin (19-8-1, 14-5-1) with a 4-1, 7-0 sweep. Think of Friday’s win as a body blow and Saturday’s shutout as the roundhouse knockout punch.
“We just rope-a-doped them,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said, recalling Ali’s famous prop-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down strategy. “We gave them that chance to get a little overconfident.”
Wisconsin, in fact, did have reason to be confident. The Badgers were riding a 13-game unbeaten streak and an undefeated freshman goaltender. Gophers fans, meanwhile, were wondering if their team might win 13 games all season.
But popular belief, in this case, might have played into Minnesota’s hands. Badgers backstop Graham Melanson is now 8-2, and Wisconsin’s luck ran out at 13.
“When all you read is that we can’t win a game, we’re injured, we’re not scoring, it might be hard to get your guys up to where they need to be,” Woog said. “We let them get to us early, but we got them on the ropes and took it away from them.”
The Gophers led 4-0 after the second period in both games, thanks in large part to the resurgent game of senior goaltender Steve DeBus. He allowed only one goal in 55 shots and put together one of his best weekends as a Gopher.
The Saturday shutout was the first of the season for Minnesota and the fifth of DeBus’ career. His timing couldn’t have been better.
In recent weeks, DeBus was platooned with redshirt freshman Erik Day in goal, with mixed results. But Woog made it clear last week that DeBus was his choice to carry Minnesota down the stretch. That’s a decision that apparently rubbed DeBus the right way.
“I do feel good about that,” he said. “I think any goalie would like to play a lot. To borrow a quote from (St. Cloud State goalie) Brian Leitza, I did my job. The coaches asked me to stop the puck, and I did that.”
The performances of forwards Ryan Kraft and Wyatt Smith certainly made DeBus’ job easier. Kraft tripled his season-long goal-scoring output in the series, scoring two goals in each game, and Smith notched his first career hat trick — also the Gophers’ first of the season — on Saturday.
“I guess I’m surprised at the scores, not at the outcomes,” Kraft said. “We proved in Madison that we could play with them, and we showed that again this weekend.”
Smith has shown all season that he can score goals, and that he can score them in bunches. He leads the Gophers in goals (16), points (31) and hats — as in the few that came flying over the boards when he scored his third goal early in the third period.
“I got three, at least,” Smith said. “I don’t think anyone knew I scored. It was kind of a lucky goal, actually. But I’ll take it.”
Youth was served on Saturday, as well, when freshman Stuart Senden had the first two-goal game of his career. Senden, a relatively unheralded recruit, has been a pleasant surprise for the Gophers of late, scoring four goals in his last seven games.
“He’s showing the most improvement of any of (the freshmen),” Woog said. “He’s got speed and strength and he’s feeling confident right now, making passes and plays. And he’s tough, too. He’s willing to put his nose in and rub his face around a little bit.”
The weekend was not all positive for the Gophers, however. Forward Mike Anderson sprained his knee in the second period of Friday’s game and could be on the shelf for up to a month. Defenseman Bill Kohn missed Friday’s game with the flu. And senior Casey Hankinson didn’t play this weekend as he continued to nurse his broken thumb.
The possibility that the Gophers could beat Wisconsin so badly — even with a full, healthy bench — was as unexpected as it was unlikely. Woog, too, said he was surprised.
“If I said it didn’t,” he said, “I’d sound pretty cocky. I was hoping our goaltending was going to be better, and I was hoping we were going to score a few more goals.
“If it continues to happen, we’ll have success. If it doesn’t, we’ll have troubles.”
But don’t expect opponents to fall for the ol’ rope-a-dope anymore.

SCORING SUMMARIES

FRIDAY’S GAME
Wisconsin 0 0 1 — 1
Gophers 1 3 0 — 4
FIRST PERIOD: Minn — Berg (Miskovich), PPG 10:08.
SECOND PERIOD: Minn — Kraft (Spehar, Abrahamson), PPG 6:07. Minn — Pagel (Berg, Senden), 8:41. Minn — Kraft (unassisted), 16:44.
THIRD PERIOD: Wisc — Smith (unassisted), 12:07.

SATURDAY’S GAME
(Target Center)
Wisconsin 0 0 0 — 0
Gophers 2 2 3 — 7
FIRST PERIOD: Minn — Kraft (Westrum, Spehar), PPG 8:31. Minn — Smith (Spehar), 11:36.
SECOND PERIOD: Minn — Smith (Spehar, Kraft), 4:45. Minn — Senden (Berg, Pagel), 6:05.
THIRD PERIOD: Minn — Smith (Kraft), 4:24 Minn — Senden (Berg, Lyons), 8:13. Minn — Kraft (Smith), 15:26.