Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gopher 0-fer: Gophs Fall 3-0 Twice to Visiting Pios

Perhaps the Pioneers really are the team that garnered nearly all of the first place votes in this year's preseason poll. Or perhaps the Gophers just aren't that good.

I think it's a little of both.

The Gophs fell 3-0 on two separate nights to the Denver University Pioneers this weekend. Sorry for the delay in the posts - I was in Palo Alto on business and not able to watch the games. I taped them both and just finished watching the end of the Saturday game. I wish I had just allowed last weekend to evaporate into thin air and had not known about the Gophers' ineptitude over the series. Alas, somewhere my sadistic psyche had to intervene and forced me to follow minute after painstaking minute.

But, I digress.

I actually thought the Gophers played pretty well in the first game, clearly winning the first period and playing the Pioneers about even in the second period despite being outscored 2-0. I would say that the third period was about even again, and I would give the complete edge in the gameplay to the Gophers in Friday's contest. They hustled and played with the consensus pre-season MacNaughton winners. Alex Kangas played well, stopping 31 of the 33 shots he faced, despite coming away with another tough-luck loss. The Gophers have now scored 0 goals in front of Kangas this year.

The Saturday game saw the Pioneers take the game to the Gophers a little more. I would give the edge to the Pioneers in every period of the game. The Gophers had a few sparks of life in opportunities by Aaron Ness and Mike Hoeffel, but just could not get the puck past Denver goalie Marc Cheverie, who stopped 30 shots each night for the visiting Pioneers en route to the first consecutive shutouts against the Gophers since 1930.

Since I don't want to go through the hours-long task of finding three Gopher stars each night for this horrendous weekend's 3 stars feature, I'll provide a three Gopher stars of the whole weekend. That way we can quickly get the series behind us and focus on the upcoming series with Alaska Anchorage.

3. Patrick White

I thought White did a nice job of injecting some hustle and providing an offensive spark, especially in the Saturday game. White was (unusually) visible over the weekend, and hopefully he can remain that way for the rest of the season.

2. Aaron Ness

Ness had a couple great rushes over the weekend, and even once found himself the recipient of a one-time pass right in the slot which he fired on target (Cheverie saved it, of course). However, the point is that Ness, now a 19 year old Sophomore, would never have been seen in the slot last year. Ness, maturing offesnively as a hockey player, has always been an excellent skater and passer. Seeing this kind of spark from Ness shows me that this kid is for real, and will be an important contributer to this Gopher hockey team.

1. Mike Hoeffel

Hoeffel again proved to me that he has to score for this Gopher team to put the engine into gear. Hoeffel had plenty of grade-A chances this weekend (a positive sign), but has to finish some of the chances if the team is going to get going offensively. Hoeffel is the type of player that can take over a game by himself, and he has shown some signs this year that he can be that go-to player that the Gophers so desperately need right now. He just needs to step it up and start finishing on his chances.

So far, Don Lucia's "scoring by committee" approach has not yielded great results: the Gophers have scored in one of four games this season, and only two different Gophers have scored goals (both top line players). I also believe it is Lucia that runs the Gophers special-teams operations; a special teams that has not scored on 18 power plays (they're actually negative total goals on the power play this year as North Dakota scored a shorthanded goal against the Gophers in the first game of the year) and has not been as effective on the penalty kill as the team had been over the past several seasons (one of the few shining strongsuits of the teams from the last several years, in my opinion). I'm not saying Donny should be packing his bags here, but I do think that Coach Lucia should be in the hot seat if the Gophers miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Hopefully it won't come to that.

As mentioned earlier, the Gophers face the University of Alaska - Anchorage this weekend. The games will take place on Friday and Sunday as the Gopher football team plays host to the Spartans of Michigan State Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium. Here's hoping for four HUGE points - or at least a couple goals - against the Seawolves this weekend.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gophers Salvage 1 Point out of Grand Forks Weekend, Tie Sioux 3-3 Saturday

The Gophers played a much better game Saturday night, coming away with a 3-3 draw against the hometown Sioux of the University of North Dakota.

The Gophers got on the board first, with Jay Barriball beating UND goalie Brad Eidsness high glove side on a two-on-one rush. Barriball elected to take the shot himself and put the puck past Eidsness. The goal, the Gophers first of the year at 6:20 of the period, was unassisted. Don Lucia went with sophomore goaltender Kent Patterson in the second game of the series. Patterson came up strong in the first period, stopping all 13 shots he faced.

The second period has been tough for the Gophers over the past couple years, and it was looking to be that way in this game as well. North Dakota came out firing, and drew an early power play which they capitalized on when Chay Genoway scored at 2:46 of the period on a shot off of Aaron Ness' kneecap, tying the game up at one goal a piece. Assists to Danny Kristo and Christian VandeVelde. The Sioux took the momentum of that goal right to the Gophers and drew another penalty just a few minutes later. On the ensuing power play, Chay Genoway struck paydirt again, tucking in his own shot that glanced off the pipe and behind Gopher goalie Patterson. It was Genoway's third power play goal of the year, and it came at 6:55 of the period. The Sioux continued their dominance, drawing yet another penalty at about the midway point of the period. This time, however, the Gophers struck back. The opportunistic Taylor Matson chipped the puck past a Sioux defender and rushed it up the rink, feeding Mike Hoeffel for a one-time shot that beat goaltender Eidsness and tied the game up at 2-2. The goal was a nice boost for the Gophers, who rode the wave of momentum the rest of the period and looked much better from that point on in.

The Gophers really came out firing in the third period, and took it to the Sioux. They had a lot of nice offensive-zone posession and several nice scoring opportunities. It was a period with a lot of up-and-down action, with the Gophers getting the better of the chances. The Gophs finally captialized when Mike Hoeffel knocked in a Patrick White rebound off the endboards, giving the Gophers a huge 3-2 lead. Ryan Flynn was credited the second assist at 11:52 of the third period. The Sioux, down but not out, did not give up, and at 13:10 tied the game up on a seeing-eye shot that somehow found the back of the net from Jake Marto. The assists went to Darcy Zajac and Mario Lamoureux.

The rest of the third period was action-packed, including several great scoring chances. The Gophers had a shot at an empty net with about a minute to go, but a Sioux defenseman was able to kick the puck away in the crease.

The game moved into overtime, where neither team really had a great scoring chance. It ended in a 3-3 tie, with the final shot total ending up at 34-19 in favor of the Sioux. The Gophers got one point out of the weekend with a loss on Friday and a tie on Saturday.

Last night's 3 Gopher Stars of the Game:

3) Jay Barriball

Barriball scored the all-important first goal of the game and, more importantly, the first Gopher goal of the year. The Gophs needed a spark to get this game off on the right foot, and Barriball provided it, putting a great shot past Eidsness for the goal. All-around nice performance from Barriball.

2) Mike Hoeffel

Hoeffel scored the Gophers' second and third goals of the game, but other than that the big winger seemed pretty invisible on the ice. No doubt the goals were huge boosts for this Gopher team, but Hoeffel will need to assert himself in every aspect of the game - mucking it up in the corners, being an asset in front of the net, playing keep-away on the penalty kill - if he can carry this Gopher team on his broad shoulders.

1) Taylor Matson

Matson was once again the best Gopher skater on the ice last night, providing great uptempo skating and a much needed burst of energy. Matson did all the work on Hoeffel's shorthanded goal, and on the power play, penalty kill and 5-on-5 he took control of the game. Matson is a real treat to watch and, if his energy level and desire to win can be infectious, he should be able to spark the Gophers to a great season.

The Gophers next face Denver at Mariucci Arena. The games are this upcoming Friday and Saturday. The puck drops at 7:00.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pathetic Display from the Gophers in a 4-0 loss to the Sioux

It was not a good night to be a Gopher Hockey fan.

The Gophers fell 4-0 to arch-rival North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and looked outmatched in nearly every facet of the game. North Dakota won what seemed like every one-on-one puck battle, and had a large edge in the face-off column. The Gophers were outshot 43 to 22.

The Sioux got on the board early with a power play goal from Jason Gregoire. Gregoire picked up a loose puck after a broken play in front of the Gopher net and stuffed it home for a 1-0 Sioux lead.

The Gophers held the Sioux to just a 1-0 lead going into the first intermission, in large part thanks to some stellar saves by goalie Alex Kangas. Kangas' most memorable save in the first period came with just 5 seconds left. He stopped a partial breakaway chance by Christian Van de Velde with a nice glove save, and led the Gophers into the locker room.

The Gophs opened up the second period by earning a key power play. However, the Gophers were ineffective and seemed lost at times, and the Sioux took advantage, with Derrick LaPoint scoring shorthanded to give the Sioux a huge 2-0 lead that they would take into the second intermission. Again, Kangas came up huge for the Gophers and kept the team in the game, even though they were getting beat to every puck. One Gopher player that did not come up so large was David Fischer. Fischer looked terrible tonight. I had high hopes for him this year (he's in my players that need to step up blog post), but he appears to have regressed. He still made terrible decisions with the puck, and he still looked like someone poured concrete in his skates.

The game went downhill fast for the Gophers in the third.

Chay Genoway scored a power play goal, and Mario Lamoureux tacked on another goal on a 2-on-1 to give the Sioux a 4-0 lead. Brad Eidsness was solid in net for the Sioux, stopping all 22 Gopher shots he saw. The Gophers didn't have many great chances, as the team was lethargic and did not get to the front of the net at all.

The Sioux definitely were the more physical team, but the physicality wasn't the difference in this game. North Dakota was simply quicker to the puck and quicker with the puck than any Gopher player tonight. It often seemed like the Gophers were standing still and the Sioux were running around them all night.

In honor of Glen Sonmor, I'll provide a 3 Gopher Stars at the end of every game. After games like this one it's tough sometimes to come up with 3 stars, but I'll do my best:

3) Nick Leddy

Leddy had a solid game, and, being his first collegiate game, he was very poised and cool in the face of what had to be a tremendous amount of adversity. Factor in that he had to attempt to make up for what was an abysmal performance by his defensive partner David Fischer. All in all, a nice night for Leddy, who looks solid and should have a good year wearing the "M".

2) Taylor Matson

Matson was the only Gopher forward that looked like he belonged in the Maroon and Gold tonight. He battled for every puck and was perhaps the only Gopher player that looked like he could keep up with the Sioux quickness. He looks like a shot in the arm for the Gophers this year, and if the rest of the players can follow his lead the Gophers should play better tomorrow night.

1) Alex Kangas

Kangas was stellar tonight. He allowed four goals, but he stopped 39 shots and kept the team in the game all night. Not one of the four goals Kangas allowed were "his fault" - defense is a team thing and the defensemen and forwards did not give Kangas much help on any of the four Sioux goals. All the same, though, this is an impressive opening performance for Kangas, and it should bode well for the rest of the season.

Don't give up hope yet, sports fans! One game down and lots more to go, the season is young and there's (hopefully...) LOTS of room for improvement!

Gophers @ Sioux - Middle of the 2nd Period Friday Reaction

Wow. The Gophers look really flat. Lots of standing around, nobody moving their feet. David Fischer has got to sit down, he gets beat every time the puck comes near him. Get Wehrs or Schack in there.

As for the Sioux, they're into the game. They're winning every little puck battle and are thoroughly dominating the game.

Fortunately for the Gophers, the score's only 2-0 right now. If the Gophs score the next goal they're right back in the game and that could be the spark that they need! I'm not giving up yet :)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

My WCHA Top 5

Here is my WCHA preseason ranking. Notes and reasons why I picked a team where I did are provided.

1. Denver University Pioneers

Denver was the near consensus preseason #1 pick by both the coaches and the media, and I see no reason to disagree. Denver returns one of the best young goalies in the conference in Marc Cheverie, as well as a solid scoring core of Rhett Rakhshani, Anthony Maiani and Tyler Ruegsegger. Denver also boasts stellar defensemen like Luke Salazar and Patrick Wiercioch. Yes, Denver lost Tyler Bozak in the middle of the season last year, but, barring any mid-campaign defections this year, look for Denver to be hoisting the MacNaughton at the end of the season.

2. University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

This might be a homer pick. The coaches and media picked the U to finish 4th in the WCHA this season, but I think that's too low. The Gophers lost Ryan Stoa, the team's leading scorer, but they didn't lose much else. They'll be returning what is a very experienced team with 12 upperclassmen returning. If Alex Kangas plays with the confidence he found in his freshman season, expect to see the Gophers in contention for the WCHA title come March.

3. University of Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers return a vaunted defensive corps this year, and many think they have a squad that will contend for the WCHA title. I'm still not sold on whomever the Badgers decide to play at goaltender, but if he's solid between the pipes the Badgers should be a lock for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

4. St. Cloud State University Huskies

The Huskies return key players Ryan Lasch and Garrett Roe, two big-name players who can bulge the twine. The question mark is at goalie, where newcomer Mike Lee from Roseau will battle old hand Dan Dunn for the starting spot. I expect St. Cloud to find a servicable enough goaltending situation to sputter into fourth place at the end of the regular season

5. University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux

The Sioux always find a way to get it done, and, while I think they'll finish in a fairly poor (for their standards) fifth place this year, they never seem to have an "off" year. The key to the Sioux' success this year will be the play of the team's underclassmen - a full 10 freshmen and 7 sophomores. Experienced this team is not. However, Dave Hakstol always seems to get his boys to play come crunch time, so look for the Sioux to be playing in Grand Forks in the first round of the playoffs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gophers @ Sioux - Thoughts

A huge series to start the season for the Gophers, as they take on the North Dakota Fighting Sioux in Grand Forks this weekend. I expect both teams to fight hard and to look a little sloppy this early in the year. I don't think supporters of either team will come away from this series entirely happy, as the teams will not be in mid-season form and the play probably will not be of the highest quality. Still, though, it will be a very entertaining series and, as always, some blood will boil over between two teams that really do not like each other.

Alright, on to the fun part - predictions! The Gophers go down early in the first game but storm back to win behind a great game from the top line. Gophers win 4-2, goals by Hoeffel (2), Barriball, and Fairchild. Saturday, the Gophers jump out to the early lead but North Dakota hangs around and wins the game on a goal in the third period. Sioux 2-1, Gopher goal by Tony Lucia. Kangas and Patterson split the series with Kangas starting the Friday game.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

5 Players that Need to Step Up

In my view, the Gophers need a few key players to step it up in order for the team to become a national championship contender in 2009-2010. Here they are:

1) Alex Kangas

This Gopher team is one that goes as Kangas goes. He did seem shaken at times during last year's campaign, but Kangas also showed flashes of the brilliance that he displayed during his freshman season. Although I do believe that much of a goaltender's stats are heavily dependant on how the defense performs in front of him, I see a Kangas resurgence in net as the primary key to the Gophers' chances of advancing to the Frozen Four in Detroit this year. If Kangas can play with confidence like he did his freshman year, I can see the Gophers as a national championship contender.

2) Mike Hoeffel

In order for the Gophers to get to the NCAA tourney this year, they're going to need to pick up a lot of the scoring that Ryan Stoa left on the table when he turned pro. Stoa led the team in scoring last year with 24 goals and 46 points. Those are not small holes to fill, and although Don Lucia mentioned a "scoring by committee" system in this year's media day I still believe that it will be up to Hoeffel to carry the burden of the scoring for this Gopher team. He should be playing on the top line with Jordan Schroeder and Jay Barriball, two players that have shown the ability to finish but are more known for their excellent puck-handling ability and their ability to make great passes to an open finisher. Hoeffel has shown the potential to be a Stoa-type player in his early career with the Gophers. He can dominate the game when he's on the ice, which is why Lucia has not been hesitant to play Hoeffel on the penalty kill over the last couple years. If Hoeffel can step up and score north of 18 or so goals this year, look for the Gopher team to be in the national title conversation.

3) Dave Fischer

Fischer is a player with a great pedigree that just has not grabbed his full potential for one reason or another. He always seems to be the player that is having a great game but makes one or two critical mistakes that result in turnovers in the Gopher zone and great scoring chances for the other team. If Fischer can avoid those disatrous turnovers and play a solid stay-at-home defense this year, he can be a leader on the ice and we won't see Alex Kangas getting scored on so much.

4) Cade Fairchild

Here's another player that needs to step it up on the defensive side of the puck. People are expecting great things from Fairchild offensively this year (some even going so far as to put him in contention for the Hobey Baker award), but his goal-scoring midset often led to too many offensive chances for the other team in the past couple years. If Fairchild can lead dynamic offensive rushes this year while still getting back to help out the defense on an attack the other way, we'll see less goals against and more wins for the Maroon and Gold.

5) Patrick White / Jake Hansen

Both White and Hansen were touted as goal-scorers out of high school. White led Grand Rapids to two state tournament finals and Hansen was the key piece in White Bear Lake's successes over the past few years. White, now a junior, has not done much in either of his first two campaigns wearing the "M", while Hansen had a disappointing 2 goals and 7 points overall. If either or both of these players is able to make a positive impact on the team's goal scoring this year, expect to see a much more dominant Gopher team come March.

I could go on, but these five players are some of the keys to the season this year. If we see improvements from all five, I would be surprised if the Gophers weren't making the trip out to Detroit for the Frozen Four this year. Let's hope that comes to pass.