Aside from a quick, overnight jaunt to Duluth on Oct. 26, the Gophers men’s hockey team hasn’t been on the road since its season-opening trip to Colorado College five weeks ago. That changes this weekend as Minnesota visits Michigan, and the chance to leave campus might be coming at the right time.
In back-to-back series against defending national champion Minnesota Duluth and then-No. 5 Notre Dame, the Gophers went 0-3-1. The highlight came last Friday night, when they tied the Fighting Irish 2-2 and captured the extra point in the Big Ten standings on Sammy Walker’s goal in three-on-three overtime. However, any momentum from that game went away as Minnesota surrendered a two-goal lead and generated only two third-period shots on goal in a 5-3 loss in Saturday’s finale.
“Playing on the road is really good — less distractions and … we’re more focused on each other,” junior forward Brannon McManus said. “It’s kind of just us against wherever we’re at.”
Minnesota and Michigan each carry 3-4-1 records into the series, which has added incentive for a pair of Gophers — freshman defenseman Matt Staudacher and junior goalie Jack LaFontaine.
Staudacher is a Fenton, Mich., native who played the past two seasons for Muskegon of the USHL. He grew up attending games at the Wolverines’ Yost Ice Arena and is excited to return.
“I’ve been to my fair share of games there,” Staudacher said. “It’s a good student section, good crowd. The place gets loud, so it’ll be a really good atmosphere.”
He also likes the fact that Yost’s NHL-sized ice sheet (85 feet wide) plays to his strengths more than the Olympic-sized sheet (100 feet wide) at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“It makes life a lot easier in the ‘D’ zone and less room for the forwards,” Staudacher said of the smaller dimensions. “I like hitting, I like making the boards shake, so that will be fun for me to do against my rival.”
For LaFontaine, this weekend’s trip marks a homecoming of sorts. The Mississauga, Ontario, native started his collegiate career at Michigan. He played two seasons for the Wolverines, posting a combined 5-10-1 record with goals-against averages of 3.37 as a freshman and 3.51 as a sophomore.
Wanting more playing time, LaFontaine left the Wolverines following his sophomore season for Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League and this season ended up at Minnesota. He was not made available to comment this week, but earlier this season when asked about the Michigan trip, he said, “I’ve got it circled on my calendar.”
“No hard feelings,” LaFontaine added. “Coaches were awesome to me there. I loved my two years there. … It just so happened that here I am still in the Big Ten.”
McManus expects a dialed-in LaFontaine against the Wolverines.
“He’s my stall mate, so I’ve kind of been nudging him the whole week, saying, ‘It’s your weekend,’ ” McManus said. “Obviously, we’re excited for him and we’re going to be playing for him.’’