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'D' . . . is for dominance

MINNEAPOLIS - A school-record 22-game undefeated streak and the No. 1 ranking in college hockey has the University of Minnesota men's hockey team feeling pretty confident heading into a two-game series tonight and Saturday against the defending N...

MINNEAPOLIS - A school-record 22-game undefeated streak and the No. 1 ranking in college hockey has the University of Minnesota men's hockey team feeling pretty confident heading into a two-game series tonight and Saturday against the defending NCAA champion Wisconsin Badgers in Madison.

Can this Minnesota team approach the levels of those that won NCAA titles in 1974, '76, '79, 2002 and '03?

"I'm sure the best team they've ever had here was the '79 team," Gophers coach Don Lucia said of a team that sent coach Herb Brooks and 10 players to the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. "If we keep these guys together for a couple of years, we'll have a chance to be really special."

So far this season, the Gophers (19-1-3) would grade an "A" on every scoresheet because of four "D's" that have emerged: Discipline, depth, defense and a dynamic duo of first-round NHL draft picks:

Discipline

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Lucia has taken a hard line publicly this season, and more than one player has said that a few minor problems a year ago that were handled internally might have allowed some members of the team to take things for granted. This season, a season-opening three-game suspension of senior goalie Kellen Briggs and the dismissal of senior forward Tyler Hirsch, probably the team's best offensive player, have demonstrated that the coaching staff is keeping a tight lid on things.

Depth

With five players competing for the U.S. team in the World Junior Championship in Sweden and two injuries, the Gophers were down to eight forwards at the finish of the first game of a two-game series against Minnesota State Mankato last weekend. The 14 available skaters avoided penalties and got offensive contributions from the usual sources, but more important, from Jim O'Brien (fourth goal), Ryan Flynn (fourth goal plus an assist), Justin Bostrom (first goal) and Mike Howe (third goal).

Defense

Briggs and sophomore Jeff Frazee quietly have slipped into the top goaltending positions in WCHA statistics. Briggs leads all three categories: winning percentage (11-0-2, .923), goals-against average (1.75) and save percentage (.935). Frazee is second in winning percentage (8-1-1, .850) and GAA (1.98) and ninth in save percentage (.900). Help comes from blue liners Alex Goligoski, Mike Vannelli and Erik Johnson, who quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Dynamic duo

Also returning from Sweden have been Johnson and fellow freshman Kyle Okposo, both selected among the first seven picks in last summer's NHL draft. Johnson, who led scorers with 10 points in seven games in the junior tournament, has 14 assists in 20 games for the Gophers while Okposo has become the team's offensive leader and a workaholic who kills penalties, mans the power play and ranks fourth in the nation in goals, averaging .79 a game.

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