Top goalies do battle at Mariucci this weekend

Mark Remme

Denver coach George Gwozdecky might have summed up the rest of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s feelings toward Minnesota’s men’s hockey team in a nutshell.

“(The remaining schedule) is more about grasping position of second and third in the conference, because I don’t see any of us catching Minnesota this year,” he said.

Coming from the coach of the nation’s fifth-ranked team, which is tied for second in the WCHA, Gwozdecky’s words echo the chokehold the Gophers (20-2-3 overall, 12-1-3 WCHA) have on the conference this season.

But all bets are off this weekend at Mariucci as top-ranked Minnesota takes on those same Pioneers (17-7-2, 9-5-2) in a pivotal conference match up. Friday’s game begins at 7:07 p.m., while Saturday’s tilt begins at 5:37 p.m.

The series comes at a prime juncture of the season. While the Gophers are unbeaten in 23 of their last 24 games, Denver is 8-1-1 in its last 10.

More importantly, these two teams, sporting a combined 17 freshmen, have reached a point in the campaign where inexperience must be overcome in order to thrive.

And for Gwozdecky, what impresses him most about Minnesota’s roster is its youth’s versatility.

“What’s been most impressive about them is how they were able to keep their successful streak going,” he said, “but also to have their top-five young players leave for the World Junior Championship and still win the (Dodge Holiday) Classic and sweep Mankato.”

He said this crew of young Gophers compare to the 1986 Michigan State squad he served on as an assistant coach. While relying on 10 freshmen over the course of that season, the Spartans ran through the postseason and won a national championship.

Still, Minnesota coach Don Lucia sees a team similar to his own in the Pioneers.

“Well, I think Denver’s a lot like us – lot of young forwards that are playing very well and they’re very strong in net,” he said.

Goaltending in particular will be the emphasis of this match up, as both teams sport two of the conference’s top goalies.

Entering the weekend, Gophers senior goaltender Kellen Briggs and sophomore netminder Jeff Frazee hold the two best goals-against averages in the conference, at 1.77 and 1.80, respectively.

Meanwhile, Pioneers junior goalie Peter Mannino is third, with a 1.99 goals-against average. Senior netminder Glenn Fisher is fourth in the conference with a 2.04 goals-against average.

“Look at the goaltenders involved,” Lucia said. “(They’re) four of the top goalies in the league, so I don’t think there will be much scoring.”

It’s not often two teams possess such dominating goaltending duos, which begs the question of which match up will be a winning combination in the crease.

But all questions aside, one thing is sure for Minnesota – a pivotal four conference points hang in the balance at Mariucci this weekend.

And it doesn’t take a veteran to realize their importance.

“It makes us feel pretty good that coaches respect us Ö but we can’t let it get to our heads,” freshman defenseman Erik Johnson said. “A big sweep this weekend would pretty much put us atop the WCHA standings for good.”