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.