"They've done a real good job this year," Gophers coach Don Lucia said on Monday, referring to the Denver Pioneers on his Monday radio show on WCCO. "They lost some guys to the pros early. But they have some freshman that have come in and really done a job, especially led by the Wild's second-round pick this year, Jason Zucker, a kid from Las Vegas. He played in U.S. national team program.
"He leads their team with 17 goals in the WCHA as a freshman. He leads the league in goals as a freshman and that is just outstanding. They have a really good defensive corps. That is really where there rock is. Some young kids have come in and done a nice job for them.
"Beau Bennett was a first round pick for Pittsbugh. He is a California kid, played in the British Columbia junior league last year. The Shore brothers from Colorado center their top couple lines. The one older one played on the World Juniors team this year.
"They've got a good team, They skate well. They get around. They are very good defensively. ... It will be a great challenge for our guys."
Denver and Minnesota Duluth, which plays St. Cloud State at Amsoil Arena, are tied for first place in the WCHA with 29 points. North Dakota, idle last weekend, is one point back with 28.
"The [Pioneers] have done better than I thought they would," Lucia said, "and that is a credit to recruiting. And it shows that some kids come out of non-traditional areas now. But their goaltender has come in and played very well, a kid from Alberta, Sam Brittain, who is a Florida draft pick."
"They have a veteran D-corps. They have one kid who came in from Green Bay as a 20-year-old freshman who has done very well. But the other five are returning. And that maybe has allowed the young kid up front maybe to make some mistakes and they would make sure they would not turn into goals against.
"And then they have scored. Luke Salazar who is a kid who had a great freshman year and really didn't play much as a sophomore. Now he is back with double digit goals again this year. They play a lot of three lines, get their best players on the ice a lot. They've done a real good job this year. Give George and his staff a lot of credit."
Scoring by freshmen at Gophers' next two opponents and past opponent:
Goals Assists Total
Denver (6) 33 49 82
Top freshmen: Jason Zucker (17-11-28), Dan Makowski (4-14-18), Beau Bennett (6-10-13) and Nick Shore (4-11-15)
Wisconsin (6) 20 54 74
Top freshmen: Mark Zengerle (5-27-32), Mike Mersch (8-7-15) and Tyler Barnes (5-9-14)
Gophers (9) 17 38 55
Top freshmen: Erik Haula (3-13-16), Nate Condon (7-6-13) and Nick Bjugstad (2-7-9)
Minnesota Duluth (5) 15 31 46
Top freshmen: J.T Brown (7-17-24) and Justin Faulk (6-12-18)
UMD ALMOST SWEEPS SCORING LEADERS
Mike Connolly moved up considerably in WCHA scoring with his six-goal weekend versus the Gophers. Now the Bulldogs have three of the top five scorers:
1. Jack Connolly 12-28-40
3. Justin Fontaine 16-21-37
4. (tie) Mike Connolly 19-16-35
The Gophers' top scorer is Jay Barriball (12-11-23) tied for 28th.
THE DON SAYS
* On former defenseman David Fischer, now playing with Florida Everglades: "David is a tall, thin kid and still needs more time to physically develop. He starts down there, but if he can do well. He is young, if he can do well, the next step is to get picked up by an NHL team and sign a contract with an American League team and move up to the American League level. That is what David is trying to do."
* On Gophers being part of Hockey Day in Minnesota on Saturday: "We are happy to be a part of it and we appreciate Denver's cooperation to have the game played at 5 [p.m.] as opposed to 7 like we normally do. High school hockey, the games are at Moorhead this year."
FSN will televise the games in Moorhead and the Gophers and Wild games later that day. ... Wayzata, with Don's son Mario, is playing Roseau in Moorhead. His wife, Joyce, is going to Moorhead to watch Mario and the Trojans. "It is a full day of hockey," Lucia said, "and it is a special day in our state that we can showcase [hockey] from the high school all the way up to the NHL."
* On Gophers being eighth in WCHA: "We are one point out of home ice and that's the way I look at things right now. We've got Denver this weekend. We go to Wisconsin, we have Michigan Tech at home and then we got to Bemidji [State]. .. We are not that far away moving up pretty significantly in the standings if we can put together a few good weekends. We have to stay healthy the rest of the year. We have to have Kent [Patterson] continue to play well. And our specialty -- I think our penalty killing has improved a lot the past couple of weeks. Duluth was 1-for-12 with a very talented power play. So that's going to help us go a long way. But, for us, are we going to ba able to score enough goals from here on out? If some guys can step up. We are getting shots. We are getting more chances than we had for a while. Now we just have to start converting on some of these chances."