MINNEAPOLIS — Last season, the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team received its weekend bye in mid-January, less than three weeks after the holiday break.
In the Gophers’ eyes, the timing of the break was unfortunate because they didn’t feel they needed a break at the time. After the weekend off, Minnesota went 6-5-3 the rest of the way to finish 13-10-5 in the WCHA, placing fifth in the conference.
The Gophers hope this season’s bye week was a little more beneficial.
After getting last weekend off, No. 2 Minnesota (19-9-1, 15-5-0 WCHA) returns this weekend for a road series against No. 14 Denver (15-9-4, 10-6-4).
“I think it was really great timing,” said Nick Bjugstad, who leads the Gophers with 21 goals and 33 points. “Last year we got a week off at the beginning of the season, which you don’t really need it because you’re not that tired. You get into February and your legs are getting a little tired. So, I feel it was good for us.”
The Gophers also were able to come out of the off weekend with their lead in the WCHA still intact. Minnesota’s 30 points in the conference are three better than second-place, and No. 3 ranked, Minnesota-Duluth. Denver is in fourth place with 24 points, one point behind third-place Colorado College.
With eight games left in the regular season, Gophers coach Don Lucia likes where his team sits.
“We’re exactly where we want to be at this point of the season,” Lucia said. “We’ve got four weeks to go, but we certainly don’t want to look further ahead than what we have coming up with a very difficult series with Denver.
“They’re a team that was picked to win the league. They’re very talented. They’ve had some injuries during the course of the season, but this is the time they’re starting to get most of their guys back and they’re one of the most talented teams we have in our league.”
Minnesota owns the country’s second-best offense, averaging 3.75 goals per game, but the Pioneers aren’t far behind, ranking sixth with 3.46 goals per game. Denver is led by Drew Shore with 17 goals and 23 assists and his 40 points are fourth in the country. Jason Zucker, whose NHL rights are owned by the Minnesota Wild, is eighth in the country in points per game with 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 24 games.
“(Zucker) is obviously a talented player,” Lucia said. “He and Drew Shore; sometimes they play together, sometimes they are on different lines. But the biggest thing we have to make sure we do is take care of the puck. He’s got great speed. They’re a very good transition team. So the more we can make sure we get pucks behind their ‘D’ and not turn it over in the neutral zone or at the offensive blue-line the better chance we’ll have.”
Surprisingly, Minnesota’s usually-potent offense has often gone missing against the Pioneers. Last season playing at home against Denver, the Gophers snapped a six-game losing streak to the Pioneers with a 7-3 win in the finale of the weekend series. Minnesota has lost nine of its past 12 games to Denver, scoring six total goals in the nine losses.
The Gophers should be refreshed heading into this weekend though.
Lucia gave his players three days off throughout last week before returning to practice on Monday.
“It’s as much mental as physical,” Lucia said. “They seem fresh. Hopefully the off week won’t catch up to us that first period on Friday and we’d have a good strong first period. We should have good energy mentally and physically this weekend.”
And Minnesota also has a bit of momentum. After losing three straight games in at the start of January, the Gophers have won four of their past five and are coming off a weekend sweep at St. Cloud State before the break.
“I think the big thing was getting the confidence back,” Minnesota’s Zach Budish said. “I mean, we were playing like a team that was a .500 team and we’re a top team in the WCHA and ranked pretty high in the country. We just had to kind of get that swagger back where we came in every night thinking and knowing we were going to win. I think we got away from that a little bit in that stretch.”
Meanwhile, Denver went 0-1-1 in last weekend’s series against Colorado College after winning seven of its previous eight games after the holiday break in January. Finally healthy, the Pioneers look more like the team that was picked as a conference favorite at the beginning of the season.
“Any time you play the preseason favorites it’s a pretty big deal,” Budish said.