Tougher Gophers' hockey schedule begins with UNO series

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2012 - 8:12 PM

 Nebraska Omaha is the first of five nationally ranked teams coming up for the U.

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Minnesota's Erik Haula

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Like most coaches, Don Lucia tells it like it is. He's honest, a realist and looks for perfection.

So when told that the Gophers rank near the top of the nation offensively, defensively and on both special teams, Lucia quickly retorts, "But we haven't played the meat of our schedule yet. Now it comes. It starts now."

Beginning this weekend when Dean Blais' red-hot Nebraska Omaha squad visits Mariucci Arena for two games, the No. 3-ranked Gophers face nationally ranked opponents in eight of the next 11 games.

That includes Friday and Saturday affairs with the 13th-ranked Mavericks, two games at No. 18 Colorado College, a Dec. 30 Mariucci Classic showdown with top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Boston College, a game with No. 6 Notre Dame and the final two regular-season games against seventh-ranked rival North Dakota until at least 2017.

"And we need that with our team right now," Lucia said. "We need to play good teams. ... When you play a good team, you get exposed a little bit in different areas of your game and sometimes you need to play a good team to find out what those are."

Lucia calls Nebraska Omaha "probably the best team we'll have seen so far this year." The 8-3-1 Mavericks haven't lost in November, winning six in a row with sweeps over Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth and Alabama-Huntsville. The Gophers, unbeaten at home this season (5-0-1) and unbeaten in their past six overall (4-0-2), will be the Mavericks' first opponent with a winning record since losing to Notre Dame on Oct. 13.

"They're one of the premier teams in the country and we're going into one of the premier buildings in the country," said Blais, the former Gophers winger who coached North Dakota to two championships. "We've had hockey 15 years, they've had it over 100. With Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau and Erik Haula and Nate Condon, they've got a little more firepower. But our guys are excited to play one of the premier teams in the league."

Don't let Blais fool you though with the David vs. Goliath talk. He's got the Mavericks rolling.

Former St. Thomas Academy standout Ryan Walters, who once was committed to the Gophers, is flying with a team-best 16 points and the Mavericks are mirroring the Gophers in almost every statistical category.

The Mavericks average 3.75 goals a game, the Gophers 3.38. The Mavericks have given up 2.08 goals a game, the Gophers 1.77. Each team allows about 23 shots a game. The Mavericks rank 10th in the nation on the power play, the Gophers ninth. The Mavericks rank 15th on the penalty kill, the Gophers fifth. Mavericks defensemen have totaled 38 points, third best in the country. Mavericks senior goaltender John Faulkner hasn't lost a game (7-0-1), while Gophers freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox is 8-1-2 with the nation's third-best goals-against average (1.46).

"We're getting a little bit of everything," Blais said.

The Gophers are coming off a sweep at Vermont where Lucia started to see a team hitting its stride more. Still, he says it's a work in progress offensively for a few players.

"[Blais'] teams, I know how they're going to play," Lucia said. "You don't have to watch video to know they're going to play a quick transition, north-south [game], they're going to come at you and they're not going to let up from the first drop of the puck until the game ends. It should be a fun series."

One thing that could help settle down the Gophers' lines is if left wing Sam Warning returns. He started the season on the second line and might return from an upper-body injury that has kept him sidelined nine games.

The Mavericks likely will be without defensemen Brian Cooper and Eden Prairie's Nick Seeler, a 2011 fifth-round pick by the Wild.

"It's killing [Seeler} that he may not be in the lineup," Blais said. "Nick is an absolute warrior. He will play for the Minnesota Wild. He's a fierce competitor. He competes at every drill he does every day as hard as anyone I've ever seen. Off the ice, he's a choir boy, but on the ice, he'll run you through the glass."

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