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.
âÄúWeâÄôre exactly where we want to be at this point in the season,âÄù head coach Don Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôve got four weeks to go, but we certainly donâÄôt want to look further ahead than what we have coming up.âÄù
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 âÄî a sweep would essentially remove the Pioneers from WCHA contention.
However, it wonâÄôt 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.
âÄúI guess with Denver, a lot of it is the altitude,âÄù Seth Ambroz said. âÄúIâÄôve never played there, but from what IâÄôve heard itâÄôs tough to play up there as far as being that high up.
âÄúI hear itâÄôs hard to breathe sometimes, and your legs donâÄôt feel that great, but I guess IâÄôll find out here this weekend.âÄù
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.
âÄúWeâÄôll have to watch our line changes and be careful not to get caught out there for long [shifts],âÄù 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.
âÄúItâÄôs a grind throughout the year, and itâÄôs nice having those breaks,âÄù Ambroz said, âÄúbut now weâÄôre refreshed and ready to go.âÄù
TheyâÄôd 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.
âÄúNot more than one a night âÄî youâÄôre not going to win many games like that,âÄù 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.
âÄúHeâÄôs an exciting player to watch âÄ¦ and heâÄôs a fast player,âÄù Nick Bjugstad said. âÄúWeâÄôve got to make sure we contain him.âÄù
Should the Gophers contain Zucker and Shore for the entire weekend, they will have a good opportunity to add insurance to their WCHA lead.
âÄúObviously a sweep would be great âÄ¦ but youâÄôve got to get that first one in order to get that second one,âÄù Ambroz said. âÄúItâÄôs a good test for us to hopefully put a team behind us, but it all starts Friday night.âÄù
Minnesota is chasing its first McNaughton Cup since 2006-07 and has a month to hold on to the lead.
âÄúItâÄôs coming down to the end of the season, so weâÄôve definitely got to dig deep,âÄù Bjugstad said. âÄúWeâÄôve been really focusing on that âÄî obviously itâÄôs a big deal if you can take first in the WCHA.âÄù
Matson said itâÄôs 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.
âÄúThatâÄôd be something special,âÄù Matson said. âÄúThatâÄôs what you dream about coming here âÄî hanging banners and [being] a part of something special.âÄù