Frosh defensemen have big skates to fill

Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard are the new Minnesota standard.

Ben Goessling

Wary of heaping too much praise on a pair of freshman blueliners, Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia won’t put the names of Derek Peltier or Alex Goligoski next to Hobey Baker Award winner Jordan Leopold without a pause or a qualifier in between.

In one breath, the Gophers coach said Peltier and Goligoski were recruited to “fill the role” occupied two seasons ago by Leopold – a superb point man on the power play who set the single-season school record for points by a defenseman.

But just as quickly, Lucia pulls back.

“Talk to me in a couple years,” he said. “I don’t get too excited about freshmen who have played seven games.”

You can’t blame the fourth-ranked Gophers (5-2-0, 3-1-0 WCHA) for curtailing their excitement. But after a pair of solid starts by Peltier and Goligoski, it’s hard not to make comparisons with Leopold, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard, who were mainstays on the back line for national championship teams.

This much is certain: For a Minnesota team searching for an anchor amid three freshmen and one sophomore defenseman, the Gophers might have found two.

Goligoski ranks third on the team with seven points after tallying two last weekend against Minnesota State-Mankato. And Peltier posted four points in the sweep of the Mavericks, giving him five for the season.

“We’re both pretty offensive players. We like to join the rush and get some shots,” Peltier said. “The forwards are doing a good job of screening the goalie and getting tips. It’s just our job to get the puck through.”

Goligoski, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native, and Peltier, who hails from Plymouth, Minn., have both seen time on the Gophers’ power play this season. Two of Peltier’s points came with the man advantage, including an assist to Kris Chucko on Friday and the first goal of his career Saturday.

The two freshmen join junior Chris Harrington to form a core capable of the offensive production that marked Minnesota’s two national championship teams.

And while they’re not to that level yet, the Gophers defensemen might have solved one of the team’s biggest questions.

“We knew with Ballard and (Jake) Taylor leaving for the NHL, we’d have to step in quickly,” said Goligoski, who teams with Harrington on Minnesota’s first line. “Playing with guys like that, it slows the game down quite a bit.”

That’s not to say Minnesota’s newcomers don’t have a sizeable amount of work to do on the defensive end.

Lucia was quick to point out that, on several occasions, Peltier and Goligoski were out of position against the Mavericks, leaving goaltender Kellen Briggs exposed.

“They still need to work on positioning. Briggs bailed them out a few times,” Lucia said. “Those are things that might not be obvious to the casual fan, but they’re very important to us.”

Still, Minnesota’s two freshmen said they know where their fast starts can lead.

“I think there can be (a Leopold or Martin) in this group. That’s what the goal is,” Peltier said. “Every defenseman on our team has good offensive abilities and can play pretty much in every situation.”

Hagemo still uncertain

Lucia said Monday that he didn’t have an update on the status of freshman defenseman Nate Hagemo, who left Saturday’s game with a neck injury.

Hagemo did not practice Monday and is questionable for this weekend’s series with Wisconsin.

Briggs honored

Briggs was named the WCHA defensive player of the week after stopping 65 of 69 shots against the Mavericks. The sophomore made a career-high 40 saves in Friday’s 9-2 win, including 22 in the third period.

This season, Briggs is 5-1-0 with a 1.66 goals against average and a .940 save percentage.

Briggs was also honored with defensive player of the week Oct. 11.