"That will probably be as big a weekend up there as they've had" in a long while, Gophers coach Don Lucia said on radio recently, referring to his team's series at St. Cloud State this weekend. "They have a very good team this year. Getting [Drew] LeBlanc back, who is one of their top players. He broke a leg, missed the majority of the year, used his red-shirt to come back."
LeBlanc, a senior co-captain from Hermantown, leads the nation with 30 assists.
"He is certainly one of the elite players," Lucia said. "They have an outstanding goalie, a very veteran D-corps. There is nothing they don't have. I picked St. Cloud to be in the top three in the league in my vote, in the beginning of the year because I liked who they had returning. And some of their freshmen have come in and scored well for them.
"I look at these next four games as critical. [The Gophers play at Wisconsin next weekend.] We are either going to be in it or out of it as far as the league as to what we do on the road the next two weeks.
"In some ways it is amazing we are sitting where we are having only swept one weekend in the league. But we have a lot of three-point weekends and we have only lost four games overall."
THE DON SAYS
* He likes playing 11 forwards and seven defensemen with the present roster: "It has worked pretty well for us now." Sophomore defenseman Justin Holl has been playing forward in recent games. "He is getting better and better up there," Lucia said. "Next year we will move him back to defense, his natural position. We have already told him that. He is continuing to get stronger. That is the biggest thing for Justin. When he came in here, physically he had a long ways to go coming directly out of high school."
Arguably, Lucia said, Holl might have been the Gophers best forward against Minnesota State Mankato two weekends ago. The Gophers were off last weekend.
Holl was a part of eight of the team's scoring chances 5-on-5, "which is tremendous," Lucia said.
* Lucia on his decision to move junior Erik Haula back to center for the SCSU series because his injured hand is better: "He is more effective playing center than he is wing. I think we have seen that the past couple [series]."
* The Gophers have gotten approval from the WCHA to take all their players -- not just 22 -- on their road trip to Chicago for their outdoor game on Feb. 17 against Wisconsin at Soldier Field. "It will be a thrill and I know our guys are excited," Lucia said.
PICKING THE WCHA
Gophers at St. Cloud State at National Hockey Center
This is a huge series, especially for the Gophers. They are tied for third place with 24 points -- five behind the Huskies who lead the league with 29. The Gophers do have two conference games in hand over SCSU, but those points are not guaranteed. The Gophers have a lot of firepower, which mostly comes from there junior class. The Huskies have one of the highest scoring freshmen classes in the country with players like Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila, who have 13 and 12 goals, respectively. Junior Nick Bjugstad and sophomore Kyle Rau each have 13 goals for the Gophers. The Gophers have gotten at least two points every WCHA series, have only swept one team, last-place Alaska Anchorage. So it stands to reason that this weekend the Gophers and Huskies will ... The Pick: Split
Alaska Anchorage at Michigan Tech: It's Winter Carnival time at Houghton, so it will be crazy. Pick. Tech gets a win and a tie
North Dakota at Nebraska Omaha: Second biggest series of weekend. One of the games will be outdoors. Pick: Split
Bemidji State at Wisconsin: Badgers have turned their season around, BSU can't score goals. Pick: Badgers sweep
Minnesota State at Minnesota Duluth: Both teams out of WCHA title chase. But UMD is home. Pick: UMD sweeps
Colorado College vs. Denver in home and home: Always lot of emotion in this series. But DU has better goaltending. Pick: Pioneers sweep.