Hard to believe it took the Gophers seven series to secure their first WCHA sweep this season. The two wins over Alaska-Anchorage kept them atop the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and USCHO.com polls released this afternoon and bumped them up in the WCHA standings, where they are tied with North Dakota--this weekend's opponent--with 19 points, one behind first-place Denver and Nebraska-Omaha.
Gophers coach Don Lucia said he was particularly pleased to see his team earn those two victories without leading scorer Erik Haula, who has missed three games because of a hand injury. Haula's status remains day-to-day, Lucia said, but he held out some hope that the junior forward might return for the North Dakota series at Mariucci Arena. The coach anticipates Haula will return to practice sometime this week; at that point, the Gophers will see what Haula is capable of handling.
"We'll see what his availability will be and what role he can play if he can play this weekend,'' Lucia said of Haula, who has a team-high 26 points--one more than the surging Kyle Rau. "It could very well be a game-time decision on Friday. We just don't know yet.''
Lucia also offered kudos to the power play, which ran smoothly in Haula's absence, and freshman defenseman Brady Skjei and MIke Reilly, who played in both games. The power play scored on five of 11 chances in the two games, including twice during a five-minute major late in Friday's game to rally the Gophers to a 4-3 victory.
Junior goaltender Mike Shibrowski got back into action as well. Shibrowski, who hadn't played since Oct. 19, went in for starter Adam Wilcox on Saturday after the Gophers extended their lead to 6-1 with seven minutes, 53 seconds left. He stopped both shots he faced.
Lucia considered starting Shibrowski, who missed a few weeks of practice after he was injured in mid-November. He ultimately went with Wilcox but thought it important to get Shibrowski some minutes. "He got a chance to get his feet wet a little bit again,'' Lucia said of Shibrowski, who played in two of the Gophers' first three games and has a goals-against average of 3.47 and save percentage of .875. "Now he's in position to play if we need him. He's getting back into his rhythm. He missed a long time.''
Lucia said he isn't concerned about the workload placed upon Wilcox, a freshman. The Christmas break and an upcoming bye week in early February, the coach said, give the goalie some well-timed rest. Lucia did add that if Wilcox continues to be the everyday goalie, he will give him a second day off during the week. (He noted that doesn't always work; Kent Patterson, Lucia said, got a similar offer last year but didn't want to take time off.)
"If we see signs he needs a game off, then you give him the game off, because you still have to look at the big picture,'' Lucia said. "But Adam is very athletic, and he's in great physical condition. Mentally, he's good. It's not like he's seeing 40 shots a night, either; he's seeing in the low 20s, and I think that makes a difference, too.''