Improved Michigan Tech team awaits

This weekend will be the last conference series between the two teams.

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad fights the puck away from Lethbridge goalie Dylan Tait on Oct. 6 at Mariucci Arena.

Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad fights the puck away from Lethbridge goalie Dylan Tait on Oct. 6 at Mariucci Arena.

Drew Claussen

Minnesota owns a 172-77-15 all-time record against Michigan Tech. Lately, though, those wins have gotten harder to come by.

The Gophers and Huskies will face off in their final Western Collegiate Hockey Association series this weekend in Houghton, Mich.

“We’re going to go on the road for the first time, our goalies are going to get tested more, our team’s going to be tested more,” head coach Don Lucia said. “I like Tech’s team.”

Michigan Tech finished eighth in the 12-team WCHA last season. It finished 12th the previous season with only four wins overall.

Mel Pearson, who is now in his second season as the Huskies’ head coach, is one reason for the improvement. Pearson was named last year’s WCHA Coach of the Year.

“They’re playing an up-tempo style, they’re coming after you,” Lucia said. “They’ve done a real nice job of getting that program back.”

The Huskies and Gophers split a two-game series at Mariucci Arena last December. Michigan Tech won the first game in overtime.

The Gophers rebounded to win the second game 6-2. Both games were chippy, and near the end of Saturday’s game, Gophers assistant coach Grant Potulny exchanged words with a member of the Michigan Tech coaching staff.

This year, the series comes earlier in the year and the Gophers are playing better hockey. Lucia said he is expecting large crowds in both games. The capacity of MacInnes Student Ice Arena is 4,200.

Michigan Tech’s rink features a smaller, NHL-sized rink, which the Gophers aren’t used to. The ice sheet at Mariucci Arena is Olympic-sized at 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. An NHL-sized rink is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide.

“It might take a period just to get used to that pace on a smaller rink again,” Lucia said.

The smaller sheet makes defending more difficult because of congestion. The Gophers practiced at Ridder Arena this week, which features an NHL-sized rink.

“Everything just tightens up and is quicker,” junior Mark Alt said. “For me, being a bigger defenseman, things happen faster, and I just need to be more alert and more aware.”

The size changes the game for forwards, too.

“Obviously Mariucci’s a huge rink, and we’ve been practicing over on Ridder, which kind of helps,” junior Nick Bjugstad said. “Personally, I think I like the little rink a little better just because I’m a little bigger-sized.”


—Minnesota jumped up to the No. 1 spot in the poll this week. The Gophers also hold the top spot in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

—Bjugstad was named the WCHA’s offensive player of the week after a two-goal, one-assist performance in the Gophers’ opening-weekend sweep of Michigan State last weekend.

Bjugstad had the game-winning goals in Friday’s 5-1 win and Saturday’s 7-1 win.

—Lucia’s next victory will be the 600th of his career. He has a 320-173-54 record in his 13-plus seasons at Minnesota. Lucia was the head coach at Alaska-Fairbanks and Colorado College before joining the Gophers.