Monday, January 12, 2015

Gopher Hockey: A Rant

I'm sorry the blog hasn't been that active recently.  I do most of my writing for GopherPuckLive and the game articles are usually outlet enough for my thoughts on the team.

Recent events have come to a head, though, and my thoughts on this team have become a little more colorful than a postgame article on a respected Gopher hockey website allow.

The Gophers are coming off a sweep at the hands of the unranked Michigan Wolverines, putting them 3-7-1 in their last 11 games.  The team now sits at 10-7-1 overall and is only ahead of the historically bad Wisconsin in the B1G conference.

Minnesota has lost to such powerhouses as the US Under 18 Team, Merrimack and Northeastern, rarely looking the part of a national title contender.

The team that lost in the NCAA Championship game last season and returned all of its key players has seen major statistical and performance regressions from nearly all of its stars:

  • First Team All-American Mike Reilly continues to dazzle with the puck, but this season he's also been inept without it.  Reilly may have a foot out the door to the NHL already, because the junior defenseman and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season seems to have forgotten how to play his position, looking lazy and lackadasical in his own defensive zone.  More often than not recently, when there's been a goal as a result of a missed assignment or a sloppy backcheck, number five is on the ice.
  • Second Team All-American (honestly not sure how he wasn't a 1st teamer) and Big Ten Player of the Year last year Adam Wilcox has been human this season, when we've come to expect him to be greater than.  Wilcox was finally, blissfully pulled in favor of Nick Lehr in Minnesota's pathetic 7-5 loss Saturday at Michigan after giving up five goals on 16 shots through just 5 minutes of the second period.  Of course I don't think all of the goals have been Wilcox's fault by any means (see above bullet point), but this team has come to expect greatness from its goaltender, and he's been just good.
  • The high-end sophomores have not been good enough.  Second-year forwards Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata and Hudson Fasching have had flashes of solid play but overall have simply not taken a step forward.  Kloos is about on pace with his freshman campaign, but Cammarata and Fasching have mustered a combined six goals in 35 games this season.  These guys are counted on to carry the mail offensively for this team, and need to step their games up for this team to succeed.  Another sophomore not called on to score as much is Vinni Lettieri - I like his game and what he brings to the table, but he too has only scored three times in 17 games.  Granted he's playing a more checking / energy role, but it's another low goal total for a player with flashes of offense to his game.
  • The senior forwards haven't fared much better on the scoring front, with the exception of Kyle Rau and Travis Boyd.  Boyd missed some time with an injury but has been productive this year, netting seven goals in just 11 games, and Rau has scored seven in his 18 games played.  Other than them, though, the other senior forwards (Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz and Christian Isackson) have scored seven goals between them despite playing in every game this season.  Isackson has never been a reliable scoring option for the Gophers, but Warning and Ambroz each scored 14 goals last season and this team NEEDS scoring depth in order to win.
  • Credit where it's due, though: Connor Reilly has been a very pleasant surprise.  He's now scored 10 goals this season to lead the team, and has been perhaps the only Gopher to "step up" his game this season.  As mentioned above Rau and Boyd have been good on both sides of the puck.  Defensemen Ben Marshall, Jake Bischoff, Michael Brodzinski and Ryan Collins have had to be good to fill the big void left by the injured Brady Skjei and the have been.  Having Skjei back and at full health for the remainder of the season can only bode well for this team that has had to withstand more than its fair share of injuries.
The season isn't over.  This team still has the pieces to make a deep run into the postseason, and if everyone plays like they are able to they have a chance to win it all this year.  But they need to start playing well first, and that means that the guys they count on to be their big players have to start playing like it.  It would be a shame if this team sputtered out before the NCAA Tournament because they were reading their own press clippings all summer long.

We'll see if they turn it around.  I'll be watching every time they take the ice, for better or worse.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

National Championship Notebook: Gopher Keys to the Game

A half hour lies between the Gophers and the start of the NCAA Championship Game.  Here are some keys to the game for Minnesota:

  • The best players need to play like it: Don Lucia talks about this all the time.  At this time of year, your best players need to step up.  That obviously includes Adam Wilcox, but forwards Kyle Rau, Nate Condon and Sam Warning need to be engaged in the game and show up on the scoresheet for the Gophers tonight.
  • The freshmen need to not play tentatively: In the Robert Morris and North Dakota games, Minnesota's highly-vaunted freshman class played nervous.  In the St. Cloud game, they played like upperclassmen.  Minnesota has relied on their stellar freshmen Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata to provide scoring all season long, and these players will need to play like they're not scared of the grand stage.
  • The third line needs to win their shifts: The Gophers' third line of Seth Ambroz-Travis Boyd-Tom Serratore is the consummate shut-down checking line that also happens to boast a couple solid goal scorers in Ambroz and Boyd.  Because of their defensive prowess, they're often paired up against the opposing team's top line.  One big matchup of today's game is the Gopher third line against Union's scoring lines - if the Boyd line can shut down Union's potent offense, it will bode well for Minnesota.
  • Minnesota's defensemen need to play with poise: One of the strengths of this Gopher team is the solid, steady defensive unit.  All six members of Minnesota's D-corps need to play heady, steady hockey and not turn the puck over.
  • Gophers need to dictate the pace: Minnesota has struggled this year when it sits back and lets the opposing team dictate the pace of play.  We saw that in the North Dakota game, when UND had the puck for the majority of the game and forced Minnesota to the outside / to dump and chase, when their strength is carrying the puck into the zone and swarming puck.  If the Gophers can take it to Union, expect good things.
  • Stay out of the box: The Gophers are one of the least penalized teams in the nation.  Stay that way.  They'll need to play a clean game and use their five on five advantage to win.
Here we go.  Half an hour away.  Let's Go Gophers!  I think this is going to be a very close game that could go either way, but I'm not here to hedge my bets.  Prediction: Gophers win 3-2 to claim their sixth national title.

Go get it!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Buzzer Beater!

Gophers’ Holl Scores with 0.6 Seconds Left to Propel Minnesota to National Championship Game

Philadelphia, PA – Just another classic moment in the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry.

Whenever you say Minnesota-North Dakota, you know you're in for something special.  These two teams have fought numerous battles over the years, with names like Broten and Wheeler etched in Gopher lore for the miracle-goals they’ve scored to beat North Dakota on a grand stage.  Tonight, Minnesota fans will add Justin Holl’s name to that storied list, after his shorthanded goal with 0.6 seconds left in the third period broke a 1-1 tie and vaulted the Minnesota Gophers (28-6-6) over North Dakota and into the National Championship Game.

Outside of the rivalry, the game itself was an exciting one, with both teams trading conservative but relentless hockey for the better part of the first two periods.  The goaltenders were the stars of the show, with Adam Wilcox stopping chance after chance from a fired up North Dakota squad, and UND’s Zane Gothberg making all the saves he needed to make to keep it knotted at 0-0.

The two teams exchanged chances throughout the first two periods, but neither Minnesota nor North Dakota could break the deadlock through the first fifty minutes.  The game’s first goal was scored with only 9:09 remaining in the third period, as Sam Warning scored his 13th of the season from Kyle Rau to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead.  Rau skated the puck around the net before trying to stuff a wrap-around attempt home.  The puck slid off his stick, but Warning was right there to backhand it home.

Minnesota’s lead was short-lived, though, as North Dakota’s Connor Gaarder scored just 32 seconds later on his own rebound, knocked out of the air, off Wilcox’s side and into the net.

From that moment on, the game was an intense fight to the finish.  North Dakota had the better of the play late in the third, and were rewarded with a late powerplay (their second of the game and only the third penalty called on either team throughout the contest) when Mike Reilly held a hard-charging Drake Caggiula up the right wing boards with 1:39 left to go in the third.

Minnesota was able to kill off the penalty until the 9 second mark, when there was a faceoff in their own zone.  Kyle Rau, who had been stellar in the faceoff circle all game long, won a clutch defensive zone draw, and the rest is history:

Justin Holl, who had played an absolutely stellar game, found the puck and led the rush up the ice.  Holl fed Rau, who fired it at the net with time winding down.  The puck bounced off a UND defender and right to Holl, who deftly kicked it to his stick and threw a perfectly-placed shot at the net.  The puck hit the inside of the far pipe before settling into the back of the net with 0.6 seconds remaining on the clock to give the Gophers the 2-1 victory!  The players rushed the ice and piled on Holl, who picked a perfect time to score his first goal of the season.

Minnesota will face a Union team that beat Boston College 5-4 this afternoon to punch their ticket to the title game.  Union is an older team that can beat you with defense and stout goaltending or high-powered offense.  The Dutchmen bring the #2 ranked offense into the national championship game, along with the #4 ranked defense.  Minnesota, on the other hand, is #6 in total offense and #2 in total defense.  The teams are similarly ranked on the powerplay and penalty kill, and both squads like to play a clean game – Minnesota was the fifth-least penalized team in the country this year, while Union was T-36th in the country in penalties per game.  All in all it should be a great game between two of the country’s best teams from start to finish.  The puck drops at 6:30 PM Central Time, and you can find the game on ESPN for TV and 1500ESPN Radio.


Final SOG: UND 37, MN 28

Kyle Rau assisted on both of the Gopher goals tonight.  The Junior captain now has 25 assists on the year to go along with his 14 goals.  Rau also tallied a team-high 5 shots on goal on the evening.

No official three stars were released, but I would select: 3) Kyle Rau, 2) Adam Wilcox, 1) Justin Holl

Minnesota advances to its first NCAA Title Game since 2003, and this is the first NCAA Title Game ever for Union.

The Gophers are 2-1-0 all-time against the Dutchmen.  Their last meeting was on 12/31/2010, when Union beat Minnesota 3-2 in OT in the first game of the Mariucci Classic.

Minnesota will be skating for its sixth NCAA Title.  The Gophers last appeared in the championship game in 2003, beating New Hampshire to claim the title.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Near Flawless Gophers Advance to Frozen Four, Will Play UND!

Well, that was fun!

The Gophers dominated the overmatched St. Cloud State Huskies to advance to their second Frozen Four in three years last night.

The final score of the game was 4-0, but what was more impressive than the score was the way in which the Gophers manhandled the Huskies.  SCSU played deep into OT the night before so maybe they were running out of gas a little bit, but it seemed like the Gophers were the better team in all facets of the game.

Minnesota got on the board first and never looked back, scoring ugly goals (Kloos 1, Ambroz, Rau) as well as pretty ones (Kloos 2).

If the Gophers can play like they did tonight, no team in the country will beat them.  Minnesota dominated the puck, forcing SCSU to the outside.  Whenever they got a bad-angle shot off, Adam Wilcox was right on form, eating up every puck and rarely allowing a rebound.

The Gophers are deep this year, boasting zero players with 40+ points but nine players with more than 20 points.  Those same nine players (eight of Minnesota's top nine forwards, plus defenseman Mike Reilly) each have nine or more goals on the season.  This team comes at you all game, and each line is a threat to score.

The team defense is also astounding - both from the forwards and the defensemen.  For a team with D-men that like to get up into the rush as much as the Gophers do, the team ranks #2 in the nation in total defense, which is as much a credit to the outstanding Adam Wilcox as it is to the forwards and defensemen playing great D in front of him, blocking shots, getting sticks in lanes, backchecking hard, playing responsible hockey.  The coaches have a system that works, and the players are following it to a T.

Minnesota will face off against who else but the University of North Dakota in the National Semifinal game.  UND is a similar team to Minnesota, in that it wins with its depth and relies on good goaltending and mobile defensemen to make good choices.  I really like this matchup for Minnesota - UND does what Minnesota does, but I don't think they do it quite as well as the Gophers do.

We've all seen this Minnesota team lose games they shouldn't this year, but I think they beat North Dakota to advance to the National Championship game in two weekends if they play inspired hockey.  Against UND, I'm pretty sure they'll come to play!