Team of the Week: Minnesota
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
On the surface, it was the same old game. Minnesota and Wisconsin in Minneapolis, battling for bragging rights and crucial conference points. For the first time, though, those points went toward the Big Ten standings, and it was Minnesota collecting all six and earning the College Hockey News Team of the Week honor in the process.
The Gophers defeated the Badgers, 4-1 on Friday and 4-3 on Saturday, in the first-ever meeting between the teams in Big Ten play. While they'll play twice more in February, getting two wins to kick off its league schedule helps Minnesota move forward into the first half in good position. The sweep of the Badgers was Minnesota's first at Mariucci Arena since November 2006.
"That's what it is," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "We can be in any conference. It doesn't matter. We're playing for rivalry. Now that we've left the WCHA, I'm sure this rivalry will heat up maybe like it was in the 70s and 80s."
So far, the first two months of the season have gone marvelously for Lucia's club. An 11-2-1 record in 13 games has Minnesota atop the Pairwise just as the grind of Big Ten play begins. Losing a number of influential players from last year's squad led many to question the potential of Minnesota. Talent was never an issue for Lucia, and it's translated to success to this point.
Junior forward Seth Ambroz scored two goals in each game, while Kyle Rau picked up a goal and two assists. All classes have contributed to Minnesota's dominant start, but Lucia's upperlcassmen have picked up where their departed teammates left off a year ago.
"It was a good weekend for us, and there is a reason (Wisconsin was) favored to win the league because of how veteran they were," Lucia said. "For our young guys, it was a growing experience. For our older guys, to see a guy like Seth Ambroz take charge was good to see."
Relying on a number of freshmen and sophomores can prove challenging for clubs early in the year. Led by second-year goaltender Adam Wilcox and sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly, the Gophers underclassmen have had as much to do with the club's success as anyone.
Goal-scoring and big saves are, obviously, important. Lucia is just as impressed with the mentality of his youthful group, which was especially visible Friday night when Wisconsin took an early 1-0 lead. Reilly scored his sixth goal of the season to knot the game, 1-1, and Minnesota never looked back.
"You have to stay with games," Lucia said. "You're not always going to be in control when you're playing good teams. There's going to be periods when they have you on your heels, and you have to fight back for different segments of the game."
The same was true on Saturday night when Wisconsin led after a period. Ambroz scored late in the second period to level the game before picking up the potential game-winner as well.
Minnesota plays two more Big Ten this weekend, traveling to East Lansing, Mich., for a pair with Michigan State. The games with the Spartans don't come with the same hype as meetings with the Badgers. Minnesota, however, needs strong performances at Munn Ice Arena to end the first half with a flourish.