The Gophers, ranked No. 1 in the nation in every poll that matters, open conference play this weekend with a two-game set at Michigan Tech. The Gophers, who have practiced all week on the smaller sheet of ice at Ridder Arena to prepare, will practice again Thursday morning before making the long trek via bus to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Tech, which split last weekend with Lake Superior State (8-4 winners in Game 2, so the Huskies can pop in some rubber) is coached by Mel Pearson, the former Edina player, and assisted by former Vancouver Canucks star rookie Bill Muckalt (cup of coffee with the Wild) and former NHL and most importantly Florida Panthers goalie (cup of coffee actually) and poker superstar Steve Shields.
The Gophers are 172-77-15 all-time vs. Tech – 8-2 in the last 10 meetings. With one more win, coach Don Lucia, in his 26th year of coaching, will become the 10th college hockey coach in history to win 600 games, the ninth to do so exclusively with Division I schools (Alaska-Fairbanks, Colorado College and the U).
In Friday’s Star Tribune, I will look back to where it all began for Lucia both personally and professionally -- Alaska-Fairbanks, where he was a grad student/assistant rink manager/coaching aid/glorified custodian, to eventually an assistant coach, to ultimately, the head coach.
The Gophers are on the ice now. They can only take 22 players to Houghton, but Lucia didn’t want to divulge the roster yet because he has not yet told the players.
He did make clear that Nick Bjugstad, the WCHA Offensive Player of the Year after scoring the game-winning goals in both games and having an assist, is good to go despite the scary incident in Game 2 when he was tripped in the first period. Bjugstad labored to the bench and was flexing his leg all game, but Lucia said he is fine and practiced by Monday.
“I’ve seen enough of that the last few years with key guys getting hurt and done for the year,” Lucia said. “We were all [holding our breath]. But no, he was fine. We’re all very grateful of that.”
Here’s Lucia on some other subjects:
On Michigan Tech: “Our goalies are going to be tested more. Our team is going to be tested more, and I like Tech’s team. We saw them last year in December. They had three well-balanced lines, they defended well and they had a good team. You look at their team this year, they have all their D back. They’re breaking in a new goaltender – a freshman goaltender, as we are. they’ve got a veteran backup – a senior goaltender. They’ve got some top forwards back, and I think that’s the strength of their team. They’ve got three lines that can score and make plays, and they come after you. What going to be different this week than what our kids have seen there before is I think the attendance is going to be really good. I’ve told some of our guys, when I played, it was one of my favorite trips. The place was always packed. It was a great atmosphere to play in. They had 3,900, which is basically a sellout, for their game against Lake State. So it should be a fun environment to play in for our players.
On Pearson: “He’s [got that program going]. They’re playing an up-tempo style. I mean, they’re coming after you like he coached [as an assistant] at Michigan, and they’ve done a really nice job at getting that program back.”
On smaller ice sheet? “Things happen more quickly. You’ve got to use the walls more, you’ve got to have good support, both offensively and defensively, and there’s obviously a little more body contact and battles that go on. It might take a period just to get used to that pace.”
“They’ve got skill to put on their power play. They scored four or five power-play goals against Lake State that opening weekend, but Mike [Guentzel] will have a great gameplan for that, the goaltenders will have to make some saves. Our team is evolving and growing. Watching this week, how are we going to respond on the road? How are our goaltenders going to do when they see 30 shots? Last week they didn’t have to worry about second shots or anything like that. Now all of a sudden they’re going to have to worry more about those things.”
On WCHA games starting? “anytime you deal with conference games, it’s a little bit added. We started five out of six on the road at the beginning of the year in the conference, so getting off to a good start even though they’re road games is important because then you’ll get those home games as a reward down the line.”