Gophers looking forward to seeing Alaska

MINNEAPOLIS — A move to the Big Ten Conference next season will mean the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team will have fewer games against in-state opponents in upcoming years.

It also means fewer six-hour flights to Alaska for series against the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. That’s where the Gophers are headed this weekend, though, for perhaps the last time in a while. Many of the Gophers players say they’ll miss playing in Alaska despite the extra travel.

“Anchorage is a really beautiful place. You fly in and have mountains,” sophomore forward Travis Boyd said. “It’s a lot of fun going up there and seeing the surrounding area. I think it’s a fun time.”

Minnesota already had a six-hour bus ride when the Gophers played in Houghton, Mich., to face Michigan Tech. That trip gave the players a chance to bond off the ice early in the year.

This weekend’s series could do the same as Minnesota flies to Alaska one last time as a member of the WCHA.

“I think it’s great. Hopefully, we’ll be able to go up there (again) sooner or later,” junior defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “You never know with the new scheduling coming up, but I think this is going to be a good trip for us, a good little bonding trip for us. This will be a nice time for us to get away and just be around the guys for a weekend because I think that’s what’s most important to us right now is creating bonds creating that chemistry that we had last year.”

Minnesota coach Don Lucia has several ties to Alaska. His wife, Joyce, is originally from the state, and his in-laws still live up there.

Lucia also spent the early part of his coaching career in Alaska. He began as an assistant coach at Alaska-Fairbanks from 1981-85 before holding that same title at Alaska Anchorage from 1985-87. From there, he went back to Fairbanks as the head coach from 1987-93 before leaving to take the head coaching job at Colorado College.

“It was a lot of fun, those two years,” Lucia said of coaching in Anchorage. “For me, I always enjoy the trip. It’s a good place to play this time of year.”

The Gophers won’t leave Minneapolis until 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, which will get them into Anchorage late Thursday night. It’s a time change unlike any other trip the Gophers will take, but Minnesota’s players don’t think the long flight will throw off their preparation too much.

“It definitely plays a factor,” Schmidt said. “You’ve just got to adapt to it. … If not, it makes for a more tough trip.”

The Gophers are plenty familiar with the Seawolves, having played them four times last year. Minnesota swept the series in Alaska early last season, outscoring Anchorage by a total of 8-1. The two teams then met in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Mariucci Arena, where the Gophers swept the series with wins of 2-1 and 7-3.

This year’s Seawolves squad enters this weekend’s series with a 2-2-2 record after picking up a 3-3 tie on the road against North Dakota two weekends ago. Alaska-Anchorage did not play last weekend and should be well rested for the Gophers.

When Minnesota and Anchorage do face off, the Gophers are expecting to see a different, more offensive-minded Seawolves team than they faced a year ago.

“When I watched them, I was really surprised at how aggressive they were playing,” Lucia said. “I watched the video of North Dakota. … I saw them playing much more pressure hockey than what I’ve seen in the past. For them, they didn’t play this weekend. They’re at home; they haven’t been at home for a couple weeks. They’ve only had one trip out. We’ll see a well-rested team. I think we’ll see an aggressive team. It should be a great series.”

The 5-2-0 Gophers are coming off a split of a home-and-home series with Minnesota State. Lucia’s team beat the Mavericks, 3-2, in the first game of the series before falling, 5-3, the following night in Mankato. The Gophers are averaging over a goal per game more than Alaska-Anchorage while giving up 2.29 goals per game (compared to 3.00 for the Seawolves).

The overall series has certainly been one-sided — Minnesota is 54-19-7 all-time against Alaska-Anchorage — but the Gophers aren’t expecting anything to come easy this weekend. And despite an early 5-2 record, Minnesota hasn’t exactly been overjoyed with how it has played so far this season.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. You’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad,” Lucia said. “… You have to play well to give yourself a chance to win. It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win. I do know that if you don’t play well, you guarantee you’re going to lose.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.