Neither team is panicking, but neither is all that happy with their start to the season, either.
After a promising sweep of Massachusetts, the Minnesota men’s hockey team stepped into Western Collegiate Hockey Association play on entirely the wrong foot last weekend, losing a pair at home to conference newcomer Nebraska at Omaha.
Its opponent this weekend, St. Cloud State, has been even more enigmatic. The Huskies, incidentally, opened their season at UNO’s annual tournament, where they beat the Rochester Institute of Technology as expected, but lost shockingly to Clarkson. Then they lost to and tied No. 3 Miami (Ohio) at home last weekend.
So, in the words of St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko, there’s liable to be a couple of “ornery” teams on the ice when the 14th-ranked Huskies (1-2-1 overall, 0-0-0 WCHA) visit the 20th-ranked Gophers (2-2-0, 0-2-0) for games 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Mariucci Arena.
During his weekly radio show Monday, Motzko also dubbed Minnesota winger Mike Hoeffel a “Huskies killer.”
“Half his goals seem to be scored against us,” Motzko, now in his sixth year with the program, said.
That’s only slightly hyperbolic. Hoeffel scored two of his nine goals as a freshman against the Gophers’ closest geographic rival and four of his 12 as a sophomore.
When the teams played last season, however, Hoeffel was sidelined with mononucleosis and watched St. Cloud sweep the series.
Now a senior, Hoeffel will be back on the ice this weekend and he’d like to resume those Huskies’ killing ways. And if the Gophers are to bounce back from a lackluster first weekend in the WCHA, it may well be up to Hoeffel and his linemates to act as the trampoline.
Minnesota’s first line has been by far its most productive early in the season. Senior right wing and captain Jay Barriball leads the team in points (five goals, two assists) followed by freshman center Erik Haula (one goal, five assists) and Hoeffel (two goals, three assists).
But then, scoring hasn’t been the issue for the Gophers — they’re averaging four goals per game. Instead, the issue last weekend, when Minnesota was swept by UNO, was that it was playing from four and three goals down late in the second period.
So, head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday before practice, two things need to happen against St. Cloud. First, and ideally, the Gophers “have to play with the lead.” In their season-opening series against Massachusetts, they scored first in both games and swept. Should the Huskies strike first, though, Minnesota must score next and level the score, Lucia said.
Regardless, the Gophers need to play better around their own net. UNO peppered senior goaltender Alex Kangas with 48 shots Saturday, 25 in the second period alone. Though Kangas turned away 44 of them, there were inevitably rebounds that led to easy Mavericks goals.
“We have to do a better job as a group of five on the ice,” Lucia said. “It’s not just the goalie, not just the defensemen.”
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