Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Gopher Hockey Christmas List, and What Santa Left Under the Tree

Hello fellow Gopher Puck lovers! Let me regale you with a story of Little Donny Lucia and his Christmas miracle.

Little Don Lucia awoke on Christmas morning to a surprise. There were presents under the locker room tree! He had left Santa Claus a long wish list, and we can only wait and see if Santa delivered.

Little Donny’s list was long indeed. First on that list was...

1. Goal Scoring
  • The Gophers score a dismal 2.50 goals per game and have already been shut out four times on the year. Jay Barriball, one of the team's most consistent scorers, is out for the remainder of the season. Jordan Schroeder, the preseason WCHA player of the year, has stalled out at four goals and eight assists through the season's first 18 games. The power play is connecting at 13.7%, and the Gophers have scored more total goals than only two other WCHA teams (Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech). This team's problem more than anything is goal scoring.
  • Santa, however, left the Gophers a great gift under the tree this year. The Gophers will welcome in transfer Jacob Cepis, a waterbug-type forward with a knack for bulging the twine. Cepis should slot into the top line, and Don Lucia needs to hope that he can unlock the struggling Jordan Schroeder, and that the combination of Cepis-Schroeder-Hoeffel can jump start the anemic offense.
2. Consistency
  • The Gophers are a team that is something of an enigma. They can beat Bemidji State 4-1 one night and lose 6-2 the next. They can lose to Michigan 6-0 and beat Michigan State 2-1 the next evening. This team has shown that they can play up to an elite level when they want to... they just need to do it more often.
  • Santa brought Little Donny a present to help the team's consistency, but he needs help from his friends from across the street Johnny Hill and Grant Potulny in order to open it. The three friends need to work together to open it, and they need the rest of the team to buy into the idea that the coaches know what they're doing in order for the present to work to its full potential.
3. A Goaltending System
  • The Gophers have not been employing a believable goaltending rotation all season. Don Lucia said that he'd be rotating Kangas and Patterson all year, but then started Kangas nearly every game thereafter. Lucia got into a funk where he was playing the hot hand when Kangas won and showing confidence in his goaltender when Kangas lost.
  • Let's hope that Santa brought Little Donny the intestinal fortitude to play both goaltenders throughout the rest of the year. Lucia's Gopher Teams have been at their best when they have a goaltending tandem that is successful. When two goalies can compete at a high level, either one can take over for the other if there is an injury. This team will be a better team overall if and when both Kangas and Patterson are given minutes.
We'll see if Little Donny and crew opened Santa's gifts come Saturday evening, when the Gophers take on Bowling Green in the first game of the Dodge Holiday Classic. Bowling Green is Jacob Cepis' former team, so the tilt should be a big opening game for the Junior Forward. Let's see if the Gophers can continue their current three-game winning streak and get on a roll!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gophers Split Home-and-Home with Mankato, Fall to 6-9-1 on the Year

The Gophers avoided a sweep last weekend after another vapid and uninspired Friday night performance at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers dropped the opening game of the weekend series against the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks 3-1 before eventually winning the Saturday night tilt 6-2 in Mankato.

The Gophers got on the board early Friday night with a nice goal by Sophomore forward Jake Hansen. Hansen found himself in the slot with the puck and bulged the twine for his third goal of the season. The Mavericks tied it up late in the first with a tally by Senior forward Jerad Stewart.

Although the score was tied after the first period, the tide of the game was turned clearly in favor of the Mavericks. Holding an 18-4 shot advantage going into the first intermission, the Mavs controlled the pace and style of play in the opening frame.

The second and third periods were much more even Neither team scored in the second period despite putting up 11 shots on goal each. The third saw two goals, both for the boys in purple. The Mavericks scored the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner on a 2-on-1 rush. Rylan Galiardi kept the puck himself rushing up the left wing and somehow beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson beneath his blocker. The Mavericks would add an empty-net goal in the last minute of the game to put the nail in the coffin.

Notable Gopher performances in Friday night's game came from Josh Birkholz, who hustles and competes every night but had not yet found the back of the net (read on...), and Kent Patterson, who played very solidly and gave his team a chance to win.

Saturday was a completely different story for the Gophers, even though it had a similar beginning. Nick Leddy opened the scoring for the Maroon and Gold, putting one past Maverick goalie Austin Lee on a screen shot. This time, though, the Gophers were able to build on their lead thanks to the hustle of Josh Birkholz. Birkholz, who had up until this point been one of the unsung heroes and only bright spots on this Gopher team, scored the second and third goals of the game, the first on a shot from the left wing and the second on a nifty rush where he weaved around three Maverick players before top-shelfing a backhand past Lee.

The third goal of the game was one of the few times that the Gophers have gotten that "separation" goal that they have so desperately needed this season but as of yet had not been able to get. It turns out that they would have to do it twice Saturday. A late period goal by Tyler Pitlick in the first period and another goal by Pitlick halfway through the second had the Mavericks back within one, but the Gophers finally pulled away for good in the third. An early Gopher goal by Nico Sacchetti, followed by goals from Patrick White and Taylor Matson, salted the game away and gave the Gophers a 6-2 victory.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend:

3. Brian Schack

Schack only played in Saturday's contest, and only notched one assist on the weekend, but he gets a star for the weekend because he was able to play effective hockey without gooning it up or getting pummeled by the Mavericks. Remember, one of the keys to this weekend series was to be the physicality as the Mavericks were itching to avenge Schack's fights last year that resulted in Maverick captain Channing Boe's broken leg. Schack was able to stay out of trouble, play fairly solid defense, and contribute an assist to the cause, and that deserves a star this weekend.

2. Nick Leddy

Leddy's return means a lot of things for the Gophers. First and foremost, it means that they have seven active defensemen on the roster, so someone can take a breather each and every night. The roster is no longer spread so thin, which can only be a good thing for this team. Leddy also came up with a crucial goal on Saturday and contributed positively otherwise on both sides of the puck.

1. Josh Birkholz

This kid has absolutely blazing speed. I think he compares favorably with some of the fastest Gopher players that I can remember (Phil Kessel, Troy Riddle and Aaron Miskovich come to mind). His work ethic and grit, combined with the afterburners, make Birkholz an impressive player that can contribute offensively, defensively, and can come up with both the big hit and the big play. He would've been a star this weekend even without his two goal performance on Saturday. Birkholz did sustain an injury late in the game on Saturday, but Coach Lucia is "hopeful" that he'll play this weekend. I'm hopeful, too, that we'll see him suited up on Friday in Houghton, MI, as the Gophers take on the Michigan Tech Huskies in a weekend series.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Disappointing Gophers Force this Blogger to Take a Short Break, but We're Back in Action Now

Sorry about the hiatus, loyal readers (are there any of you out there?). The Gophers' recent 0-3 swoon including two heartbreaking losses against UMD (both of which yours truly was in attendance for) and a game against Michigan in which the Gophers lost 6-0 and just phoned it in had forced me to take a mental health break from the team.

However, the 2-1 win over then #7 Michigan State has brought me back from the edge, and I'm ready to preview the Gophers' upcoming home-and-home series versus the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks.

The Gophers, in 9th place at 3-6-1 in the WCHA and 5-8-1 overall, face off against the 7th place Mavericks (4-7-1, 6-7-1) tonight in Minneapolis and Saturday night at the Alltel Center in Mankato. This is a huge series for the Gophers, who have a chance to bank some key WCHA points before the Christmas break with Mankato this weekend and Michigan Tech next weekend.

Mankato is a team paced by its upperclassmen. Senior forwards Jerad Stewart (6-6-12) and Zach Harrison (4-8-12) lead the team with 12 points scored on the season, with Juniors Ben Youds (0-10-10) and Rylan Galardi (3-6-9) are next on the team in scoring. In fact, the Mavericks have only 27 points total from the 11 Freshmen and Sophomore skaters on the roster. The fact that this team is very experienced will definitely play a role in the series, as the Mavs should be itching to avenge last year's fight instigated by Gopher defenseman Brian Schack. The fight resulted in a pileup, during which Channing Boe broke his leg and ended his season last year.

Schack may not need to suit up for the Gophers this weekend, though, as Freshman defenseman Nick Leddy is likely to return to action against the Mavs. Leddy's return should give the Gophers seven available defensemen, a welcome respite for a team that was thin on players due to the Leddy and Barriball injuries as well as the Lofquist departure.

I expect the Gophers to build on their big win over the Spartans last Saturday and get two more key wins this weekend against one of Minnesota's biggest in-state foes. The Gophers will win a fairly close 4-2 game Friday, and Saturday's game in Mankato will get chippy towards the end as the Maroon and Gold pounds the Mavericks 6-1. Expect both Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson to get a start in goal for the Gophers this weekend.