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Hockey Half Hour Notebook: Gophers thriving with upperclassmen

A decade ago, when the likes of Kyle Okposo, Erik Johnson and Phil Kessel were doing the “one and done” thing in Dinkytown, the Gophers were at a decided disadvantage and knew it. Coach Don Lucia’s teams struggled in the late 2000s, due at least in part to the lack of upperclassmen, where local teams that thrived in that era – Bemidji State’s 2009 Frozen Four trip, St. Cloud State’s 2013 Frozen Four trip, and Minnesota Duluth’s 2011 NCAA title come to mind – were fueled in large part by the contributions of seniors and juniors.

After last weekend’s home sweep of Penn State, the Gophers head into the toughest six-game stretch of the season, with series at Ohio State, at Penn State, and at home versus Wisconsin. They’re currently the odds-on favorite to win their fourth straight Big Ten title, and the run has been fueled in large part by the contributions of upperclassmen.

Sophomore Tyler Sheehy is Minnesota’s leading scorer. The next five on the stats sheet are all juniors and seniors. Perhaps the most overlooked player in that experienced quintet is senior defenseman Jake Bischoff, a second-generation Gopher with just two goals, but who is second on the team with 19 assists.

“He can do it all. He’s like a Swiss Army knife – he’s got every tool in the box,” Lucia said. “He can defend, he can play on the power play, he can play 4-on-4, he can block shots. I think he’s been as good as any defenseman in our league and is certainly playing at an all-conference level.”

Kick saves:

–In 1995, Bemidji State traveled to Alabama-Huntsville and came home with a trophy, beating the Chargers in a mini game (non-sudden death overtime) to win the NCAA Division II national title. This weekend, with a win in the South, the Beavers will earn another trophy. They need one victory in their final four games to clinch the WCHA title for the first time in school history. That will mean all five of Minnesota’s D-I hockey programs will have won the MacNaughton Cup at least once.

–With the collapse of the agreement between Arizona State and the Arizona Coyotes to build a new hockey arena in Tempe, many questions have been raised about whether the NHL can survive in greater Phoenix. Likewise, with ASU still without a conference and still playing most home games in what would pass for a small high school rink by Minnesota standards, one wonders if the “college hockey in the desert” experiment is in danger as well. Let’s hope those rumors of real college hockey at UNLV happen soon, to at least give the Sun Devils a neighborhood rival.

–The “real” story behind the collapse of the ASU/Coyotes arena deal hasn’t been revealed, but based on past precedent, partnerships between pro and college teams never seem to work out in favor of the college – the sharing arrangement for Heinz Field between the Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh being a perfect example. Trepidation on the part of the University of Minnesota was at least one of the reasons that the plan for one on-campus stadium to be shared by the Gophers and Vikings fell apart. Although having both TCF Bank Stadium and US Bank Stadium in town seems to be working well so far.

–Congratulations to Wild forward Charlie Coyle, playing in his 284th consecutive game this week to become the franchise’s ironman, eclipsing the mark previously held by Antti Laaksonen.

–St. Olaf coach Mike Eaves, in his first season back at the D-III level (he coached UW-Eau Claire in the 1980s) will not finish above .500 in the regular season. But in recent interviews with both the New York Times and USA Hockey Magazine, he says he is loving life. Fired by Wisconsin a year ago after 14 seasons and one NCAA title for the Badgers, Eaves and his wife are living at the lake cabin outside Faribault that they bought 20 years ago when Eaves was coaching at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Eaves’ son Ben is an assistant coach with the Oles, and a campaign is underway to raise $6 million for a new on-campus hockey rink in Northfield.

–Big Ten teams can be commended for playing non-conference games versus the teams in their neighborhood. But a relatively easy time in the non-conference schedule may have been one of the reasons that Penn State had such high expectations – the Nittany Lions were ranked #1 in the country a month ago – and have fallen so hard in Big Ten play, going winless in their last five games. While the Lions were cleaning up on the teams in their neighborhood, beating the likes of Mercyhurst, Canisus and Niagara, the Gophers were having a tougher time, but perhaps learning more, while facing NCAA tournament contenders like North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth in the non-conference slate.

–Four of the top six scorers currently on the Iowa Wild roster have all gotten at least a game or two on the NHL roster this season. One who has not yet, and is currently tied for second in scoring with the Baby Wild, is rookie forward Mario Lucia – son of Gophers coach Don. One wonders with Alex Tuch getting sent down after a few games is we’ll see a familiar name getting his chance in St. Paul during this franchise-record eight-game homestand.


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