The Gophers entered the season as the 19th ranked team in the nation. Denver was No. 4.
Oh, the difference a four-month stretch can make.
“We’re exactly where we want to be at this point in the season,” head coach Don Lucia said. “We’ve got four weeks to go, but we certainly don’t want to look further ahead than what we have coming up.”
The No. 2 Gophers will make the trek to No. 14 Denver this weekend with a six-point lead over the Pioneers in the WCHA — a sweep would essentially remove the Pioneers from WCHA contention.
However, it won’t be so much about the near 1,000-mile plane ride, but rather the 1 mile of elevation that will be waiting for them upon their arrival.
“I guess with Denver, a lot of it is the altitude,” Seth Ambroz said. “I’ve never played there, but from what I’ve heard it’s tough to play up there as far as being that high up.
“I hear it’s hard to breathe sometimes, and your legs don’t feel that great, but I guess I’ll find out here this weekend.”
Taylor Matson has battled in Denver multiple times throughout his four-year career, and he said fatigue sets in a lot quicker in the high altitude.
“We’ll have to watch our line changes and be careful not to get caught out there for long [shifts],” Matson said.
Minnesota (19-9-1, 15-5-0 WCHA) had a bye last weekend, which seems to have been planned at the perfect time, given the added fatigue the elevation can imbue.
“It’s a grind throughout the year, and it’s nice having those breaks,” Ambroz said, “but now we’re refreshed and ready to go.”
They’d better be.
The Gophers have struggled immensely against Denver in the past and are 2-8-0 in their last 10 meetings, a fact Lucia attributed to inability to score.
Minnesota has scored a total of five goals in those eight losses.
“Not more than one a night — you’re not going to win many games like that,” Lucia said.
Denver (15-9-4, 10-6-4) is led by Drew Shore and Jason Zucker on offense. The tandem has 40 and 33 points on the season, respectively.
Zucker was the 59th overall pick by the Minnesota Wild in the 2010 NHL Draft, but he will be a target this weekend.
“He’s an exciting player to watch … and he’s a fast player,” Nick Bjugstad said. “We’ve got to make sure we contain him.”
Should the Gophers contain Zucker and Shore for the entire weekend, they will have a good opportunity to add insurance to their WCHA lead.
“Obviously a sweep would be great … but you’ve got to get that first one in order to get that second one,” Ambroz said. “It’s a good test for us to hopefully put a team behind us, but it all starts Friday night.”
Minnesota is chasing its first McNaughton Cup since 2006-07 and has a month to hold on to the lead.
“It’s coming down to the end of the season, so we’ve definitely got to dig deep,” Bjugstad said. “We’ve been really focusing on that — obviously it’s a big deal if you can take first in the WCHA.”
Matson said it’s hard not to think about the title even with a month left in the season.
Matson has yet to hold the McNaughton Cup in his career.
“That’d be something special,” Matson said. “That’s what you dream about coming here — hanging banners and [being] a part of something special.”