Over the past month or so, it finally seemed like the line combinations were coming together for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team following much early season juggling.
All four lines were producing offensively and the solidity in the combinations was a big part of the Gophers’ recent success.
Then came the Jan. 28 contest at Wisconsin.
While Minnesota won the game, 3-1, the team lost a pair of forwards — junior Danny Irmen and sophomore Kris Chucko — to shoulder separations. Both will be out of action this weekend.
The top-ranked Gophers (18-6-4, 13-5-2 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) will have to find a way to win with some new combinations as they head to Houghton, Mich., to take on Michigan Tech (7-18-3, 6-11-3 WCHA) for a two-game set this weekend. Game times for the series, taking place on the Huskies’ Winter Carnival Weekend, are set for 6:07 p.m. Friday and 4:07 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s a little frustrating,” senior forward Andy Sertich said of the line juggling. “But, at the same time, it gives other guys that weren’t playing, or playing more insignificant roles, time to kind of jump up and be the goal scorers and be the leaders of the team.”
Judging by the line combinations in practice this week, there will be plenty of opportunities for some new players. Minnesota looks to be going into the series with three new sets:
• Sophomore Mike Howe has been bumped up to fill in for Irmen on a line with junior Ryan Potulny and freshman Ryan Stoa.
• Sertich and freshman Justin Bostrom will replace Howe and Chucko on senior Gino Guyer’s line.
• Senior Peter Kennedy and sophomore Tom Pohl, both of whom have seen little ice time this season, will fill in for Bostrom and Sertich on sophomore Evan Kaufmann’s line. Kennedy also will be moving from defense to forward.
The only line that will remain intact is the combination of freshmen Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler and sophomore Ben Gordon.
While some of these lines are particularly new, especially the Potulny, Stoa and Howe line, coach Don Lucia noted that the Gophers’ bye last weekend gave them some extra time to deal with the changes.
Besides, Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell said Minnesota still has more than enough firepower left despite the shakeups.
“They still got Phil Kessel, they still got (sophomore defenseman Alex) Goligoski, they still got Potulny,” Russell said. “So there’s an awful lot of skill and talent on that team.”
There could be a minor change in the goaltender situation, as well. Junior Kellen Briggs has seen a large chunk of the minutes in net since mid-December, including each of Minnesota’s past four games.
But the popular thinking is if the Gophers win Friday, and maybe even if they don’t, freshman goalie Jeff Frazee will see action Saturday.
Lucia, as usual, was noncommittal regarding the goalie situation, saying only: “Briggs is going to play (Friday) and we’ll wait and see on Saturday.”
But Lucia did say his team will have to play the way it did late last season when it swept the Huskies on the road by scores of 4-2 and 5-0 in order to ensure another successful trip to the Upper Peninsula.
“We went up there, I thought, played very well the last week of the year heading into the playoffs,” Lucia said. “So I think we’ve got to go up and replicate how we played that weekend.”