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!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

NCAA Tournament: Sunday Morning Roundup and Sunday Viewing Guide

Another exciting day of the NCAA tournament came and went yesterday, and two teams have already punched their tickets to the Frozen Four.

North Dakota won an overtime thriller over Ferris State to win the Midwest Regional and advance to Philadelphia, while Union was the first team to advance to the Frozen Four with a 3-1 afternoon win over Providence.

In other action yesterday, Boston College trounced Denver 6-2, Minnesota eventually prevailed over Robert Morris 7-3, UMass-Lowell beat a tough Minnesota state team 2-1, and St. Cloud State scored an overtime goal to cool off sizzling Notre Dame 4-3.

Conference Records through two days:

Atlantic Hockey: 0-1, (RMU loss to Minnesota)
Big Ten: 1-1 (North Dakota over Wisconsin, Minnesota over RMU), one game today (Minnesota vs St. Cloud State)
ECAC: 2-2 (Union over Vermont, Providence over Quinnipiac, Ferris State over Colgate, Union over Providence)
Hockey East: 3-3 (Providence over Quinnipiac, Union over Vermont, Providence loss to Union, BC over Denver, Lowell over Minnesota State, Notre Dame loss to St. Cloud State), one game today (BC vs Lowell)
NCHC: 3-1 (North Dakota over Vermont, North Dakota over Ferris State, Denver loss to BC, St. Cloud State over Notre Dame), one game today (St. Cloud State vs Minnesota)
WCHA: 1-2 (Ferris State over Colgate, Ferris State loss to North Dakota, Minnesota State loss to Lowell)

I did a little better yesterday in my predictions, going 4-2 to push my record to 5-5 so far. Only two games left in the regionals to predict today, and here they are. As usual, all times Central:

4:00 PM - Northeast Regional Final: (2) Boston College vs (7) UMass-Lowell, TV: ESPNU, Stream: WatchESPN - A game of two different styles. Boston College brings the nation's highest scoring offense to bear against All-World goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and UMass-Lowell's nation leading defense. Prior to last night's rout of Denver I might have picked Lowell in a tight one, but I think BC's high-octane offense will just be too much for the RiverHawks to handle. The winner of this one goes on to play Union in the Frozen Four. Prediction: BC wins 4-2

6:30 PM- West Regional Final: (1) Minnesota vs (9) St. Cloud State, TV: ESPNU, Stream: WatchESPN - Minnesota certainly didn't play their best in a 7-3 win over Robert Morris, but they did well enough to win. More importantly for a team that struggled scoring goals, they got on the scoresheet - a lot. St. Cloud State prevailed over Notre Dame in overtime, and although SCSU is a good team I think they're a good match-up for the Gophers - SCSU likes to play an uptempo offensive style that Minnesota will be more than willing to follow. When the two teams met earlier this year, the Gophers came away 4-1 victors. The winner of this game will face North Dakota in the National Semifinals. Prediction: Minnesota wins 5-3