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November 8, 2007 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Knocked Down, But Not Out

by Dane DeKrey/Staff Writer

There's a scene from Rocky IV when Rocky is fighting the Russian, where after being brutalized for pretty much the entire fight, Rocky stuns him with a flurry of punches, to which the fight's announcer surprisingly shouts, "He's cut, he's cut, the Russian is cut!"

And in that moment, Rocky realizes the Russian's mortality, thereby overcoming his fear of the seemingly invincible opponent — the classic tale of David and Goliath.

Well, four games into conference play and winless for the first time in program history, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are the embodiment of the Russian while the rest of the WCHA are gleefully playing the part of Rocky.

It's the question on everyone's mind that nobody wants to ask: Are the Gophers really this bad or is it too early to tell?

"Well, it's been good and bad so far this year," said coach Don Lucia. "We've had a couple of weeks where we dug ourselves a hole losing to Denver and Colorado College, but we're not making excuses. We didn't play to the level we need to play to beat those two teams."

That level, by Minnesota standards, is nothing short of excellence. Getting to that level, however, may not be as easy as years past given the team's composition this season. It's a composition that includes seven freshmen skaters, a blue line corps void its top two defensemen, and, apart from Blake Wheeler, a group of underperforming veterans.

Wheeler, whose name's been overheard during early Hobey Baker talks, said he was working to help the young team overcome its early struggles, which has included being outscored 14-4 in WCHA games.

"The numbers don't lie — we have a lot of young freshman on our team," said Wheeler, who leads the team in goals and points — 4 and 6, respectively. "Like anything else, it takes time to adapt to the pace of play of college hockey. We just haven't found our rhythm yet."

If Wheeler is right, and Minnesota's feet aren't yet backed against the wall, they're getting increasingly closer with each conference loss, as the parity of the WCHA — top-to-bottom college hockey's premier league — makes every point matter all the more.

But points don't come without goals, and goals seem to be coming few and far in between for the boys of maroon and gold, which is probably the most surprising thing of all for a team that not only has a history of scoring, but was, if anything, expected to play a lot of high-scoring games on both ends this season. This is especially true for the team's leading scorers from last year.

Lucia pointed to three in particular.

"It [winning] starts with our top returning guys from a year ago — Kyle Okposo, Jay Barriball, and Ben Gordon," Lucia said. "These guys need to be the best players night in and night out, period."

So if the question isn't "Can Minnesota bust out of its slump," maybe the better question is "Will Minnesota bust out of its slump?"

Lucia seems to think so.

"Look where the Yankees were in June, or how the New Orleans Saints started the season 0 and 4 and now are 4 and 4," said Lucia, comparatively. "As coaches, this is the fun part in some ways because now we get to see how far we can bring this team along."

Wheeler agreed.

"The thing we need to do game in and game out is compete for the entire 60 minutes", Wheeler said. "If we do that, we're going to be fine. Again, with a complete performance, we are going to win our fair share of games and things should take care of themselves."

The rest of college hockey is waiting for proof.

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