Wednesday Roundup: Gophers Talk Tech, Playing At Home, Not Having A Bye Week and WJC

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Go Gophers! Don Lucia
Go Gophers!
The Gophers are 29-5-4 against Michigan Tech under coach Don Lucia.
Go Gophers!
Playing Michigan Tech

The Gophers have won seven straight games against Michigan Tech and their last loss in regulation to the Huskies was a 5-4 defeat at Mariucci Arena on March 3, 2006.

Minnesota went 4-0-0 against Michigan Tech last year, but knows that this year's squad from Houghton, Mich., is much improved from the team that won four games a year ago.
Husky alum Mel Pearson is in his first year as Michigan Tech's head coach and has his team of to an 8-7-1 start (5-6-1 WCHA).

"Tech is off to a great start with their new coach," said Minnesota bench boss Don Lucia. "They have a good nucleus of returning players. Last year three of their top four scorers were freshmen. They have some guys that can put the puck in the net and more than anything, that's what's been missing from their program the last couple of years. Now they're scoring, their specialty teams are strong, and they've gotten a good performance from their senior goaltender."

Redshirt sophomore Zach Budish said the Gophers need to play well this weekend to carry some momentum into the holiday break. However, he knows that will not be easy against the new-look Huskies, who were also missing key players last year because of injury.

"Michigan Tech is a lot better than they've been in the past," said Budish. "We've got to be ready to go both Friday and Saturday."

Freshman Seth Ambroz is looking forward to emptying the tank this weekend.

"We've got a break coming up so there's nothing to save," said Ambroz who scored his first goal in 16 games last Saturday against Minnesota State. "It's going to be a fun series. It's going to be a physical series."

Home Improvement

Minnesota finished last year with a 9-10-3 record at Mariucci Arena, which was its first season under .500 at the new Mariucci. The Gophers have raced out to an 8-1-0 home record this year and are 5-0-0 in home WCHA games.

"It is something we emphasized when the year began," said coach Don Lucia. "We had our struggles at home last year and did not play particularly well. This year, we have come out with much more energy and played better start to finish. We have had very strong first periods and have finished off games at home as well."

The Gophers, who are 13-4-1 overall and 10-2-0 in the WCHA, are ranked No. 2 in both major polls this week. Minnesota has outscored its opponents 42-11 at Mariucci Arena this season, including 14-2 in the first period and 15-2 in the third period.

"We have also had very good goaltending at home," said Lucia, who has watched his Gophers pitch five shutouts in nine home games this year. "We have also scored some timely goals. Last year, we would get a lead but then we could not get that separation goal. That is a big reason we have the record we do, because we are having success at home."

Another thing that is different this year at home is the atmosphere in the building. The Gophers are averaging 9,148 fans at Mariucci Arena and the barn is rocking again.

"We have played better and our fans have reacted to it," said Lucia. "When our fans get into it a little bit more, our players get into it a little bit more. When our players get into it more, our fans get into it more. They have fed off each other and it has been a much better atmosphere. I think our fans are excited about our start."

Senior captain Taylor Matson said he thinks the Olympic-size ice at Mariucci Arena has benefited the Gophers this season.

"I think the Olympic sheet is an advantage for us because of our speed and aggressiveness," said Matson, who scored twice at home against Minnesota State last weekend. "We are also in great shape this season. It is the best conditioned team that I have been a part of and that has had a big effect in the third periods. That is where we have been successful this year."

Sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said the team was not happy with their performance at home last year and has worked hard to change the home results.

"One of our goals at the start of the year was that we wanted to protect home ice as much as possible," said Schmidt, who leads the Gophers with 17 assists. "It's gotten away from us the last couple of years--not playing well at home. One of the biggest things is getting in front of the home fans and performing the way we know we can and putting a better product on the ice than we have in the last couple years by working hard and blocking shots. We've changed our mentality over the last year."

Playing Every Weekend

While most teams have already had a bye week in their schedule, the Gophers will play for the tenth straight week when they host Michigan Tech on Friday and Saturday. It is the first time since the 1990-91 season that Minnesota will play 20 games before the holiday break. After this weekend, Minnesota will not play against until the Dec. 30-31 Mariucci Classic.  

Go Gophers! Zach Budish
Go Gophers!
Zach Budish is second on the team with 14 assists.
Go Gophers!
For head coach Don Lucia, playing 10 straight weeks has been fine with him.

"If you are healthy it is fine and we have been healthy," said Lucia. "If you are nicked up a lot then that is where that bye week can come into play. The bye week is hard from the standpoint that you shut it down and do not have practice with your players and you do not know if they are going to come back sluggish after that week."

Redshirt sophomore Zach Budish said he prefers the schedule the way it is this year.  

"I do not like a bye week," said Budish, who is second on the team with 14 assists. "I think we are in a good routine right now. We have not had too bad of a streak here, so it is nice to keep it going. I like playing every weekend instead of sitting at home and watching on TV."

The Gophers by week this year is the first weekend in February.

"That comes at a pretty good time," said Lucia.

Bjugstad, Rau Headed To Camp

Sophomore Nick Bjugstad and freshman Kyle Rau were named to the preliminary roster for the 2012 U.S. National Junior Team today. Bjugstad and Rau are two of 29 players who will gather for a camp in Camrose, Alta., on Dec. 17. The camp will include exhibition games against Russia (Dec. 20), Switzerland (Dec. 21) and Slovakia (Dec. 23).

The final 22-player U.S. National Junior Team roster is expected to be named Dec. 22.

"It is exciting," said Rau. "I do not really know what to expect when I get there. I am going to talk to Nick and see what to expect, but it is exciting."

What does Rau have to do to make the team? Even he is not sure.

"That is a good question," said Rau. "Just play my game and hope that is what they want."

Rau was not invited to the 2011 U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in August in Lake Placid, N.Y., but has turned the heads of USA Hockey in his first 18 collegiate games. He leads all freshmen nationally in points (19) and goals (11). His five game-winning goals are also tied for the most in the nation among all players.

Bjugstad thinks Rau will fit in just fine.

"It is exciting and will be nice to have Kyle there as well," said Bjugstad, who is second in the nation in points (26) and goals (15). "Hopefully we can have a good showing at the tryout and perform well. It is a fast-paced game and the players are younger. The players are not as strong as in college hockey but it is really fast and skilled hockey. Kyle will adjust fine as he is a really fast player."

Bjugstad helped lead the U.S. to a bronze medal at last year's World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y. He had two goals and two assists in six WJC games a year ago. Both of his goals were game-winners, as he scored the overtime game-winning goal against Finland and then scored the game-winning goal in the bronze medal game against Sweden

"It was a surreal experience for me," said Bjugstad. "There were a lot of good leaders on the team. We played Canada in our barn but there were 18,000 Canadian fans was a pretty cool experience for me. It had to be like a Stanley Cup experience. It was very hostile and very intense. It was fun."

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