Sunday, November 15, 2009

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Gophers Win Friday, Lose Saturday to Bemidji State

The Gophers played with grit, heart and determination to earn a much needed 4-1 victory Saturday night against the previously undefeated Beavers of Bemidji State. Unfortunately, they forgot that the weekend series was two games long.

The Beavers trounced the Gophers Sunday evening, scoring six goals against the hapless goaltending tandem of Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson to beat their Minnesota Gophers team 6-2, despite the fact that the Gophers held a sizable lead in the shots on goal statistic.

All the momentum and excitement the team generated during their dramatic and exciting victory in the first game of the series was drowned out by sloppy play, devastating turnovers and, quite frankly, an attitude that lacked the fire and desire to win that we've seen with great Gopher teams in the past.

Saturday's game got off to a bad start, however. A bad bounce on a breakout pass by Tony Lucia led to a 1-on-0 opportunity that Beaver forward Jordan George capitalized on, quickly making the game 1-0 Beavers in the first. However, the Gophers answered right back, getting a goal-line scrum goal from sophomore forward Nico Sacchetti. The Gophers and Beavers played each other tough throughout the second period, with Mike Hoeffel netting the eventual game winner on a 5-on-3 power play. The Gophers got some insurance late in the third period on goals by Jordan Schroeder and Mike Carman.

The 3 Gopher Stars from Saturday:

3. Nico Sacchetti

Nico was crashing into people all night and played a great combination of smart-physical hockey. He was very visible throughout the game, making quality plays nearly every time he stepped onto the ice. He also scored the first Gopher goal of the game right after Bemidji had scored their first goal, which provided the Gophers a much needed shot in the arm at a critical juncture of the game. Sacchetti also assisted on Jordan Schroeder's goal.

2. Alex Kangas

Kangas was lights out again Saturday night, making some terrific stops in the crease. Perhaps the most critical portion of the game was the Beavers' own 5-on-3 power play chance, and Kangas came up huge making several spectacular saves to stonewall the Beavers' scoring chances.

1. Jordan Schroeder

Schroeder would've been in the 3 Stars tonight even if he didn't have any points. He played that solid of a game and was the best player on the ice for either team whenever he was in the game. He was stickhandling very well and always seemed to find the open man for a great scoring chance. It was nice to see him get his first goal of the season - he's been due for that and hopefully Schroeder scoring goals is a trend that we'll see continuing.

Sunday's game started in a similar fashion as Saturday's game. Another patented David Fischer pass to the opposing team in our own slot led to the Beaver's first goal. This time, though, the Beavers continued to pile on the goals. Matt Read scored on a disputed goal with less than a minute to play in the first period. The start of the second period saw sophomore goaltender Kent Patterson take the place of Alex Kangas, despite the fact that neither of the Beavers' two first period goals were Kangas' fault.

The Gophers finally got on the board halfway through the second when Jordan Schroeder rifled a one-timer past Beaver goaltender Mathieu Dugas on the power play.

However, a series of plays soon after the Schroeder goal would doom the Gophers chances of completing the sweep. A questionable (at best) checking from behind call on the Gophers Zach Budish led to a 5 minute power play for Bemidji State. Just a handful of seconds after Tony Lucia hit the crossbar on a shorthanded breakaway Bemidji put one behind Patterson and into the net to effectively seal the game.

The momentum swing was palpable inside Mariucci Arena after that series of plays. A dumb penalty by Jordan Schroeder at the end of the second period gave the Beavers all the boost they needed, as they converted a power play goal, a Pat White turnover and a Jordan Schroeder turnover all within the first 3:04 of the third period to put the score at 6-1 and turn this game into a laugher.

Although the Gophers did have several flurries in the middle of the period, including a Jake Hansen goal, the game was all but in the bag.

The 3 Gopher Stars from Sunday night's game:

3. Joey Miller

Miller was the catalyst to some of the late game flurries. He played like he either didn't know or didn't care what the score was - he played gritty and hard. I like those kinds of players, and Miller deserves credit for playing his heart out all the time.

2. Zach Budish

I know Budish was out for half of the game, and his penalty was the turning point of the game, but you've gotta love how this kid competes game in and game out. That penalty call was a joke, he was battling hard and should have gotten two minutes at worst. If Budish was in the game, I think we would have seen a different outcome, and at the very least a more competitive Gopher team in the second half of the game.

1. Tony Lucia

Lucia continues to find ways to contribute positively to this Gopher team, whether that be on the stat sheet or just with consistent effort and solid play. Now, if only he could shoot the puck a little bit lower...

The Gophers welcome the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs to Mariucci Arena this Friday and Saturday, with game times at 7:00 both nights. I expect to see a better effort from the Gophers next weekend!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gophers to Face Off this Weekend Against Bemidji State Beavers

The newest addition to the WCHA may continue the Gophers' woes as they attempt to continue a very tough opening schedule this weekend.

The Gophers open a weekend series versus the 7th ranked Bemidji State Beavers tonight. Bemidji, who is joining the WCHA next season, is tearing up its final year in the CHA, posting a 7-0-1 record through eight games to make them the only remaining undefeated team in college hockey. Although they have not played much serious competition (their opponents are a combined 13-22-2 overall) they haven't lost yet, and you can only beat the team that is suited up on the opposite bench every night.

This weekend's series should be a good test for both teams. While I do think Bemidji is a pretty good team, I'm not sure they can compete week in and week out at the level they have been playing against top teams in the WCHA like Minnesota and North Dakota. This also should be a good test for the Gophers, who haven't won many games but have played top competition. We should see which team can win and which team maybe is just overachieving.

This week also saw a bevy of rumors about players leaving the team. First came the rumor - and eventual departure - of sophomore defenseman Sam Lofquist. Just a day later, rumors on the internet swirled over sophomore forward Jordan Schroeder leaving the team to go to the NHL's Vancouver Canuck system. In a rare response to message board rumors, the University of Minnesota issued a press release stating that Schroeder would stay at the U and that he was fully committed to the team. While I don't fully buy that excuse, it's nice to see the U attempt to quash that rumor right away.

I see the Gophers getting at least 3 points this season. I'll go for a 3-3 tie on Saturday night and a 5-1 Gopher win on Sunday, although I wouldn't be all that surprised if the Gophers get a sweep or if Bemidji wins a game and the two teams split.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Adding Insult to Injury, Gophers D-Man Sam Lofquist Quits Team for OHL

Gophers' sophomore defenseman Sam Lofquist has decided to forgo the remainder of his University of Minnesota career to play in the Ontario Hockey League.

Lofquist, who had played in 3 games this season, has withdrawn from his classes at the U.

The sophomore's departure leaves the Gophers with only six healthy defensemen. Minnesota will now be playing Kevin Wehrs and Brian Schack on a regular basis until freshman defenseman Nick Leddy has recovered from a broken jaw that he sustained in the game against Alaska-Anchorage a couple weeks ago.

Wehrs and Schack were the Gophers' 7th and 8th options on defense coming into the season, with defensemen Cade Fairchild, Aaron Ness, David Fischer, Nick Leddy, Seth Helgeson and Lofquist ahead of them on the depth chart. Although both Wehrs and Schack have looked surprisingly good this year in the limited time we've seen them on the ice, each makes their share of mistakes and will need to play attentive defense to be a compliment to this team as a whole.

One thing to watch for is the roster for the United States' World Junior team to be released. The Gophers seemingly always have two or three players gone for four to six games in the middle of the season due to their being selected to participate on the World Junior team. I would guess that Aaron Ness would be selected to play on the team and, if that were to be the case, the Gophers would only have five healthy defensemen on the roster while Ness was absent. The team might need to look at moving a forward back to the point in order to field the customary 12 forward, 6 defenseman lineup.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gophers Ride Kangas' Big Game, Beat Badgers 5-2 to Earn Split

The Gophers righted the ship on Saturday by defeating the hometown Wisconsin Badgers 5-2. The game was won mostly on the back of junior goaltender Alex Kangas, who made 45 stops en route to earning a much needed two points.

Conspicuously absent from the starting lineup was junior forward Mike Hoeffel. Hoeffel, who had an allergic reaction prior to the game, sat out. The Gophers had already lost scoring threat Jay Barriball to knee surgery, so it was interesting to see how they would do with not one but two of their top scorers out of the lineup.

Even with a depleted roster, the game started in the exact opposite fashion to Friday's contest. This time, it was the Gophers that jumped out to an early lead. Tony Lucia shot the puck past Badger goalie Brett Bennett on a 2-on-1 at just 1:17 of the first period giving the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Only 5 minutes later, Zach Budish tipped in a Tony Lucia pass to make the game 2-0 Gophers. Despite multiple Badger power plays, the Gophers held their 2-0 lead into the first intermission. Kangas came up huge in the first period and all night, stopping 17 Badger shots in the opening frame. The Gophers mustered 6 shots in the first.

The Gophers again got on the board, this time late in the second period, when Patrick White knocked the puck into a nearly open net on a broken play, making the game 3-0 in favor of Minnesota. The Gophers were again outshot in the second period to the tune of 15-10. Many of those 15 Badger shots were difficult saves for Alex Kangas, including one near the end of a Badger power play. On an across-the-goalmouth pass, Kangas made a toe save on a seemingly wide open goal and kicked it away, preserving what at the time was a shutout bid.

Any Gopher-Badger game has to have some excitement, and this game was no exception. Jake Gardiner scored at 28 seconds of the third period to bring the Badgers within two goals at 3-1. The Gophers seemed to shell up after the Gardiner goal, content to chip the puck out of the zone and get frequent line changes to keep the players fresh. Brian Schack added another Gopher insurance goal at 8:31 of the third period. His shot from the point snuck its way into the back of the Badger net.

That appeared to be the nail in the coffin, but the Badgers came storming back. Ryan McDonagh knocked a puck out of midair into the back of the Gopher net at 12:14 of the period to again bring the Badgers within two goals of the Gopher lead at 4-2. There were several flurries after the McDonagh goal in which Alex Kangas had to come up with critical saves to preserve the victory, but Zach Budish's empty-net goal at 18:59 of the third period all but sealed the Gopher win.

The Gophers did not score on their power play and are now 2-35 on the season. I know that they're not a 5.7% power play unit so they must be a little snakebit, but nothing they do with the man advantage leads me to believe that they will have a best-in-the-nation type of power play this year. They do too much passing and try to make the perfect play far too often. The Gophers need to stop trying to make the perfect play and start looking for second-chance opportunities to score on the power play.

Also of concern is the staggering shot totals the Gophers are allowing this year. After being outshot by Wisconsin 47-28 last night, the Gophers are averaging a defecit of 7.5 shots per game to their opponents. The Gophers have always been a team that drubs the opposing team in shots, so I'm curious as to where our cautious shooting is coming from this year. I understand that the last two games were against Wisconsin, who plays a very defensive-oriented system and prides itself on not allowing many shots on net, but to be outshot by an average of 7 shots per game over 8 games so far does not bode well for the rest of the year. Part of the problem may be the team's willingness to score goals causing defensive lapses, especially early in the year against Denver. Let's hope that this is more of the issue than the fact that the Gophers don't have a good team defense this year. You cannot expect your goaltender to make 40+ saves every game and be a very good team.

Tonight's 3 Gopher Stars of the Game:

3. Tony Lucia

Lucia tacked another solid game to his year, tallying the first goal of the game as well as a couple assists. Lucia now has four goals and five assists in just eight games, and leads the team in goals, assists and total points.

2. Zach Budish

Budish was solid in Saturday's contest, scoring the second goal of the game as well as the last goal. While it is great to see Budish find some of his scoring touch, it was his work in the corners and in front of the net that caught my eye. Budish is a big body at 6'3", 220 lbs., and he's beginning to use that size to his advantage. He is a physical presence in front of the net as he asserts himself and can begin to bang in rebounds, and he cannot be moved off of the puck in the corners.

1. Alex Kangas

The man stopped 45 Badger shots on Saturday. Not much else to say. He made saves on breakaways and odd-man rushes, and he made the key saves when they counted. He was excellent, and gave the Gophers an outstanding effort to record his third victory of the year.

The Gophers face off against the Bemidji State Beavers this upcoming Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday's opening faceoff scheduled for 7:30.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Wisconsin Plays Tough D, Beats Gophers 4-2

The University of Wisconsin Badgers played their usual brand of stifling defense and opportunistic offense to take care of the University of Minnesota tonight in Madison, downing the visiting Gophers 4-2.

Wisconsin controlled the style of play for nearly all of the game, forcing the Gophers to take outside shots and blocking many of their chances. The strategy showed itself in the final shot tally, as the Gophers only mustered 18 shots to Wisconsin's 32. The Gophers finally showed up in the third period, carrying the bulk of the play and giving themselves a chance to win in the final 10 minutes until Ben Street's goal at 18:08 of the third.

In goal for the Gophers was Junior Alex Kangas. Kangas gave up four goals - two of which were on the soft side - but all four were due to misplays by the Gopher forwards. The first Badger goal occurred because the Gophers couldn't clear the offensive zone, the second goal was due to a Patrick White fanned pass in his own defensive zone, and the third goal was due to a Tony Lucia bad pass. This Gopher team played a very sloppy game tonight, and were lucky that Alex Kangas played brilliantly enough other than the soft goals to keep them in the game.

To be fair, the Badgers did take advantage of lots of Gopher mistakes. If this team wants to be playing at Mariucci and the Xcel Energy Center come playoff time they really need to limit these miscues and start playing better hockey. I noticed the Gopher defensemen pinching in and leaving a Badger odd-man rush far too often. I know they're trying to create some more offense with Barriball out, but there's a time to push harder and there's a time to play smart, and it seemed like the Gophers were pushing a little too hard all game.

The Gophers got goals from Mike Hoeffel on a nice pass from Jordan Schroeder and a power play goal from Patrick White, who played a pretty good game apart from his miscue that resulted in the second Badger goal.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game:

3. Jordan Schroeder

Schroeder was all over the ice on the offensive end tonight, giving the Gophers tons of quality scoring chances that he either took himself or set up for his teammates. He had the first assist on the Hoeffel goal, but he needs someone else to step up on the team and start putting the puck in the net (or he needs to start doing that himself).

2. Aaron Ness

Ness again was brilliant, putting in a great effort on the defensive end and again finding himself in great situations on offense. This kid is a great passer and can skate around anyone else on the ice. He's got to start getting some confidence in his own shots - he often times passes when he has a wide open shot on the net.

1. Josh Birkholz

I really noticed Birkholz tonight. He was wreaking havoc in the Wisconsin zone and was a thorn in their side all game long. He might be the fastest player on this Gopher team, and, if he can find a little bit of a scoring touch, he'll be a menace on the ice for a long time coming.

Tomorrow's game against the Badgers faces off at 7:00 PM. Hopefully the Gophers will put forth a better effort than they did tonight.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gophers @ Badgers - Series Preview

The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers will hop on the bus to Mad Town this weekend to take on the hometown University of Wisconsin Badgers. Any time the Gophers take on the Badgers, there's lots of bad blood and ill feelings between the two squads, which is part of what makes the rivalry so great.

The Badgers play a very defensive style of hockey. Their goal is to clog up the shooting lanes with sticks and limbs and force the opposing team to settle for long shots from the outside. They very rarely have a defensive breakdown and sport a very solid corps of D-men lead by Ryan McDonangh and Jake Gardiner. While the Gophers are coming off a much needed sweep of Alaska-Anchorage, the Badgers are coming off their own convincing sweep of the University of New Hampshire. Many coaches picked Wisconsin to finish third in the WCHA this year, so they are expected to contend and be a solid team.

I would not be surprised to see a split in the series this weekend. I think that the Gophers will win Friday night 4-2, while the Badgers will win a much tighter game on Saturday 2-1. Let's see how the Gophers will fare without Senior winger Jay Barriball, who was hurt in practice this week and will not be making the trip with the team.

Drop the puck!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Barriball Hurt in Gopher Practice, Out For the Season?

I have just heard from a few sources (Hammy's Twitter and confirming reports from the U) that Senior Forward Jay Barriball was injured fairly severely in practice and may be out for the season. I do not know yet what type of injury Barriball has incurred, but any time a player has a potential season-ending injury you always think that it has to do with a torn knee ligament.

Let's hope that this report is false, but I doubt it. The sources I've heard from are pretty trustworthy. This would leave the Gophers two men short as Freshman Defenseman Nick Leddy is out for the next two months with a broken jaw.

The good news is that Barriball, a senior, would be able to appeal to the NCAA for a medical hardship waiver and another year of eligibility. This means he may be able to come back next year if he is truly out for the rest of the year. Right now, though, this seems like a pretty thin silver lining in an otherwise horrible blow to this Gopher team. On a team that struggles to score, Barriball was one of the players we had come to count on to put the puck in the net. He had just reached the 100 career point milestone in Friday's game against Alaska-Anchorage with an assist. Barriball became only the 79th player in Gopher history to have recorded 100 career points. Hopefully he'll be able to record many more in his Gopher career, either this year or next.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Gophers Wake Up, Sweep UAA Handily in Weekend Series

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!