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Streaking Gophers look like mismatch for 'Dogs

Usually, Minnesota coming to the DECC to face UMD in a WCHA hockey series means an electrifying weekend. But the way things have been going for the Bulldogs, this weekend's Gopher invasion seems more like an electrocution.

Usually, Minnesota coming to the DECC to face UMD in a WCHA hockey series means an electrifying weekend. But the way things have been going for the Bulldogs, this weekend's Gopher invasion seems more like an electrocution.
The Gophers, who opened the season by beating the Bulldogs in two bitter games, have had their lapses this season, but they currently are on a red-hot roll. The Gophers (17-5-2) have won nine straight WCHA games, which is their best since an 11-game win streak five years ago, and if they win two from the Bulldogs this weekend, they will be in position to vault from second to first, past North Dakota, by also sweeping St. Cloud State in next weekend's final series.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, seemed to reach the pinnacle of frustration last weekend, when they were unable to beat a team that couldn't win -- Alaska Anchorage had gone winless for 20 straight games as of Friday's tie with UMD, and the Seawolves snapped the futility streak by winning 5-3 on Saturday. That was their first victory since Nov. 17, and the loss leaves UMD dead last in the WCHA at 2-19-3. The Bulldogs could be doomed to a two-victory season with the high-riding Gophers coming to town and a closing series at Denver next week.
Other comparisons between the two teams paint a similarly bleak portrait for the Bulldogs. While the Gophers have won nine straight, UMD is 0-7-2 in its last nine. The Bulldogs also are 0-9-1 against Minnesota since beating the Gophers in the 1998 playoffs.
Minnesota is scoring 4.30 goals per game, to UMD's 2.81. Minnesota's power play is clicking at an amazing 29.3 percent, while UMD's is 19.5. And Minnesota's penalty-kill is at 89.5 percent efficiency, compared to UMD's 73.7.
While first-year UMD coach Scott Sandelin is scrambling and juggling to extract the talent from his beleaguered forces, Gopher coach Don Lucia can do no wrong. Lucia, a Grand Rapids native, straightened out his once-wavy hair into a Twin Cities suburbanite's trendy look for this, his second year of rebuilding the Gophers, and everybody he throws over the boards seems to be able to score goals and polish their Mr. Hockey resumes.
Erik Westrum, the WCHA's prime antagonist, has either cleaned up his act or found a way to be more subtle, while rising to third in WCHA scoring with 21-28--49. Jordan Leopold is close behind, and leads WCHA defensemen with 10-30--40.
Tommy Nelson leads UMD with 15-21--36, but even John Pohl -- who has been playing since October with a broken bone in his wrist, and since Christmas with a broken bone in his ankle -- can offset that, with 15-21--36.
Lucia has polished his coachspeak to the point where, as recently as a week ago, he said that he wasn't even looking at going for first place, but rather for positioning in NCAA ratings. Sandelin got a chuckle out of that.
"First place gets you the home status throughout the playoffs," said Sandelin. "That's big, because you always have last line-change. And, believe me, to win that MacNaughton Cup, and be able to hold it up over your head -- that's what you play for."
What UMD is playing for is to determine whether they will hit the road for Grand Forks, or maybe Minneapolis, for the first round of playoffs in this long season.
All the usual cliches remain, about this being such a big series between such storied intrastate rivals that you can throw the records out the window. But they seem totally misplaced this particular week of this particular season.
Unless ....

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