Gophers attempt to knock SCSU down a peg

MINNEAPOLIS — When the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State men’s hockey teams square off this weekend, it will be the No. 1 team (in the rankings) versus the No. 1 team (in the WCHA standings).

The Huskies currently sit atop the conference standings with a 14-5-1 record in WCHA games. Meanwhile, the Gophers are the top-ranked team in the country in both major college hockey polls. But as Minnesota attempts to catch St. Cloud State in the conference, coach Don Lucia’s squad knows how important it is to pick up points in these two games.

“We’ve talked about the importance of success on the road. We’ve been a pretty good road team the last few years,” Lucia said. “We’ve always played well in St. Cloud historically. If we’re going to get in the way of them winning the league title, we’re going to have to get some points this weekend.”

St. Cloud State boasts the second-best scoring offense in the WCHA, as the Huskies have scored 3.40 goals per game. Senior Drew LeBlanc is one of the conference’s top scorers, averaging 1.35 points per game after missing last year with a leg injury. As good as the Huskies are offensively, they’re equally as balanced on defense, giving up the fewest goals of any team in the conference (2.00).

The Huskies are also the least-penalized team in the WCHA at just 8.1 penalty minutes a game. Their power play is second-best in the conference behind the Gophers, and SCSU boasts the best penalty kill in the WCHA.

Obviously, the Huskies have done a lot of things right this season to get to where they’re at in the standings. That makes the upcoming weekend series a tall task for the Gophers.

“They’ve always played good against us, but this is probably as talented as they’ve been ever since I got here,” said junior forward Erik Haula. “I’m really looking forward to seeing it. It’ll be a good test for our team.”

This past off week was good for the entire Gophers team, but it was especially good for Haula, who has been dealing with a hand injury. He returned for Minnesota’s series against North Dakota but was playing on the wing, not at his usual center position.

But without any games this past weekend, Haula was able to get close to fully healthy and will return to his center position this weekend against the Huskies.

“It’s pretty much 100 percent,” Haula said. “There’s really no problems anymore. I feel comfortable taking faceoffs, taking whacks at it.”

Minnesota will need Haula, who is the team’s leading scorer with 31 points despite missing a few games. Even with their top scorer nearly fully healthy, the Gophers will have to deal with the hostile crowd at the National Hockey Center, which seats 5,371 fans.

“It’s a fun environment to play in,” said Gophers junior defenseman Nate Schmidt. “It’s a hostile environment, makes for a fun weekend when you play in front of a sellout crowd like it’s going to be at the National Hockey Center this weekend.”

Added Haula: “Everyone hates the Gophers, but especially there.”

As important as this weekend’s series is for Minnesota in the WCHA standings, it will be the annual homecoming for Schmidt, who also happens to be a St. Cloud native. He was a standout at St. Cloud Cathedral before enrolling at Minnesota.

Plenty of his family members will be in attendance at the National Hockey Center, including his grandfather. Before the Gophers take the ice Friday, they’ll have a team dinner at the Schmidt residence.

“My mom asked me about it and I was like, ‘I don’t know. Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to have the boys over.” Schmidt said. “It should be fun. I’m excited to have the guys over. Any college kid will know you never turn down a home-cooked meal.”

So what’s on the menu the night before the Gophers’ big series against the Huskies?

“I think it’s a mystery meal right now,” Schmidt said “She hasn’t really told me yet, so I don’t know.”

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