March 17, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hats Off to Wheeler

by Theresa Spisak/CHN Reporter

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hats Off to Wheeler

Blake Wheeler's Hat Trick Sends the Gophers to a Final Five Championship Date with North Dakota

By Theresa Spisak
Blake Wheeler's college career has been somewhat up-and-down, and far in the distance from the day he stood at the podium, more than a year before he came to Minnesota's campus, having been selected No. 5 overall by Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes at the NHL Draft.

Clearly, Friday's hat trick in the WCHA Final Five was the highlight of his career — at least next to accepting a Coyotes' jersey from The Great One.

The deciding goal in Minnesota's 4-2 win over Wisconsin came with four seconds left in the second period. With Badgers forward Jake Dowell in the penalty box for hooking late in the period, Wheeler tipped in an Alex Goligoski shot from the point past goaltender Brian Elliott (21 saves) on a textbook play off the faceoff.

"I guess you've got to give coach a lot of credit for that one - he replaced me with Kyle (Okposo) on the face off, a guy who can actually win a draw out there," laughed Wheeler. "I was just lined out to the left and I kept backing up and tried to force the defenseman to give us a little bit more room there and he kind of let me go to the net and Alex made a great play getting it on my stick - he kind of did all the work for me."

With the victory, the Gophers fulfilled a goal of theirs from last year - make the championship game.

"Nobody wants to play in the two o'clock game on Saturday," said senior defenseman Mike Vannelli (goal, plus-2). "That was a big thing for us, getting to the championship."

"I'm just glad I'm not going to be here at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon," coach Don Lucia said. "We knew that today was going to be a difficult game. We talked about it, that just trying to end somebody's season and here is the defending national champions here coming in, playing good and on a roll."

Now Lucia's Gophers will face arguably the hottest team in the country in North Dakota - a game that will be interesting to prepare for, particularly since his team lost forward Mike Howe to an undisclosed injury.

"I don't know, I know we don't have a chance - I mean that's kind of the consensus," Lucia quipped when asked how his team will ready itself. "North Dakota is an outstanding team, there's no question.

"We're down to our last 12 forwards and six defensemen on our roster, but our guys are going to show up tomorrow and we're going to play and I think we'll make a game out of it."

NOTES: Minnesota hopes to win their first Broadmoor Trophy since 2004 Saturday night. ... The Gophers and Sioux have faced off against each other twice already this season, with UND winning both games (5-3, 7-3). ... Kellen Briggs (29 saves) tied Adam Hauser for most career wins for a WCHA goaltender with 83.

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