Maybe all the Gophers needed was a spark.
An injury to one of the team's up-and-coming players propelled the Gophers to a pair of convincing wins this weekend over the visiting University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. The Gophers won handily both nights, defeating the Seawolves 5-1 Friday while prevailing 4-1 in a Sunday rematch between the two teams.
Perhaps the biggest turning point of the season so far came in the first period on Friday. With the game tied 1-1 late in the period, Freshman Defenseman Nick Leddy took a heavy hit up around his chin area as he was cutting across the ice just inside the offensive zone. Leddy, who had released a slapshot on the net, was hit hard by Jade Portwood. There has been some speculation as to whether the hit was late - in my opinion it should have been a penalty simply because it was a hit to the head. Leddy went down hard with a cracked jaw and possible concussion and will miss the next 6-8 weeks. This was a big blow for the Gophers, as Leddy was one of the bright young players on this team, but they've got to be glad that his injury A) wasn't a season- or career-threatening injury, and B) came early in the year rather than at the end. Leddy should be back right around the Dodge Holiday Classic, which is also when we'll see newcomer Jacob Cepis for the first time.
In the meantime, the Leddy injury really seemed to rally the Gophers into the rest of the weekend. They outscored Alaska-Anchorage 3-0 in the second period and 8-1 from the second period of Friday's game to the end of the game on Sunday. Tony Lucia had a great night on Friday, coming up with the go-ahead goal on a shorthanded breakaway and adding another shorthanded goal in the third period to put the Gophers up 5-1. Also scoring Friday were Kevin Wehrs and Zach Budish. Both goals were the players' first collegiate goals. Congratulations to Kevin and Zach! The other Gopher goal scorer on Friday night was Aaron Ness, who scored the first goal of the game.
Flying a little under the radar all weekend was Gopher goaltender Alex Kangas, who was impressive both nights in limiting the Seawolves to just two goals on 55 total shots over the two-game series. Kangas was solid between the pipes in both games, while at times showing flashes of brilliance in coming up with critical stops at key points in each game.
The three Gopher stars from Friday's game are:
3. Alex Kangas
Kangas, as mentioned above, made all the saves he needed to make and probably a few that he shouldn't have Friday night. Kangas was a crucial component of the Gophers' penalty killing efforts, and his solid play was the foundation that the Gophers built their Friday win upon.
2. Taylor Matson
This kid is in the three stars every night because he deserves to be. He puts in outstanding effort for 60 minutes every night. Matson made the play that resulted in the first Lucia goal, and he was making plays on the ice every chance he got.
1. Tony Lucia
Lucia scored two shorthanded goals on Friday night while adding the lone assist in the Wehrs goal. Lucia was his usual gritty, grinding self, and he was rewarded for it with a pair of goals and a three-point night overall. Scoring the very important second goal of the game for the Gophers, Lucia was the #1 star for the team.
Near the end of the game, some skirmishes broke out as some UAA players repeatedly took runs at Jordan Schroeder. While I hate fighting in hockey, it was good to see players like Mike Hoeffel, Jay Barriball and Seth Helgeson step up and defend their teammates. I think the Gophers got some momentum from these scuffles and brought it into the game on Sunday.
While the Gophers dominated the score of the Sunday tilt winning 4-1, the play was not nearly as crisp as it was on Friday. Other than the many penalties the Gophers took, Friday's game saw a relatively sharp Gopher team - passes were tape-to-tape, players were skating hard, etc. Sunday's game, though, was sloppier than I'd like to see. This kind of blurry around the edges play will not hold up against good teams like Wisconsin, Denver and North Dakota.
That being said, though, the Gophers did find a way to put the puck in the net, which is something that had been sorely lacking this season.
Patrick White scored his first goal of the year and has surprisingly looked an all-around better player of late, Tony Lucia added another goal and assist to his burgeoning point total, and again Alex Kangas was quietly very effective, allowing only one goal on a tip in that the referees had to review to see if it was played with a high stick (it apparently was not).
I also really liked the play of Sophomore Defenseman Aaron Ness. Now, I am a big Ness fan and am very happy about the maturation process he's undergone offensively, but a comment made recently on one of my earlier blog postings has had me looking especially at Ness' defensive abilities this weekend. I saw Ness battling for the puck in the corners and behind the net, using his quickness and exceptional hands to make up for any size or strength advantage he may give up to opposing players vying for the puck. He did leave some lanes for opposing players to skate into, but Ness always had his eyes on the play and was stepping into the play before it happened, just not at the first instant that he could have. I thought that was more because Ness was a patient defender than because he was soft. All-in-all, I could not be happier with Ness' development thus far. He's dramatically improved on offense by injecting himself into the play far more often than he had been last year, and he's quick enough and smart enough to be a competent if not very good defender too.
Here are the three Gopher stars from Sunday's game:
3. Aaron Ness
I noticed Ness a lot on Saturday, and not just because I was looking for him especially. He was controlling the puck down along the halfwall and even behind the goal line at times on the power play, and he never seems to make a stupid play. I believe that Ness has the quickness, skill, hands and smarts to become one of the great Gopher defenseman in recent history, and if he stays four years he could join the ranks of Gopher greats like Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, Keith Ballard, Mike Crowley, Todd Richards, etc.
2. Jordan Schroeder
Schroeder picked up a couple assists in the Gophers' 4-1 win on Sunday, but his play the entire game led me to believe that he's on his way back to last year's form. Schroeder controlled the game when he had the puck, skating circles around defending players and showing his unique ability to skate around until he can make a pass that will give the receiving player a great chance to score. Schroeder still needs to shake the rust off of his shot - he continually shoots the puck high and wide - but once that happens Schroeder and the Gophers will see a boost in scoring.
1. Patrick White
White scored his first goal of the season Sunday, and it happened to be the all-important first goal of the game. More importantly, though, White played a very positive game both Friday and Sunday and made his presence felt on the ice. It appears that White has finally made that jump in development and is able to rein in some of his own prodigious potential. Once White can start garnering some confidence, I firmly believe that he will have a breakout year this season and score lots of goals for this Gopher team.
The Gophers travel to Madison to take on a tough Badger team this upcoming weekend. Look for a preview of that series tomorrow night!