Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jekyll & Hyde Gophers Lose a Pair to Surging St. Cloud State

Another weekend, another step backwards for the Gophers.

Just a week after the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey team posted a breakthrough 5-1 victory against arch-rival North Dakota, they fell flat on their faces in a key series against the St. Cloud State University Huskies.

The Gophers (12-12-2 overall, 7-9-2 WCHA) who are desperately in need of wins and points if they wish to compete in the postseason, played without the desperation and sense of urgency that they needed in order to compete with a quality hockey team. St. Cloud (16-7-3 overall, 11-5-2 WCHA) on the other hand played like a hockey team that deserves its number five position in the Pairwise rankings.

The Huskies got off to early insurmountable leads in both games this weekend. Friday night saw the Huskies off to a 3-0 first period lead on goals from Garrett Raboin, Jared Festler and Garrett Roe. Raboin's goal came at 7:37 of the period on a nifty pass from Festler. The backbreaking goal of the game was Roe's goal which came with only nine seconds left in the first period. The Gophers did not come out entirely flat, winning the shots-on-goal 13-10 in the period, but they were plagued by the same problem they've had all year - goal scoring. The Gophers are eighth in the WCHA at a paltry 70 goals in 26 games this year. They win games when they limit the opponents to two goals or less. Give up three goals or more, and it's the rare game that the Gophers steal.

So, going down 3-0 after the first period is not a good sign for this team. They tried to come back, though. Despite a St. Cloud goal in the period by David Eddy, second period goals by Tony Lucia, Jacob Cepis and Jake Hansen cut the St. Cloud lead to one, at 4-3. Again, though, the Gophers could not finish on their chances, and their comeback bid fell one goal short, as the Huskies took the game by a 4-3 final.

Saturday's game followed a similarly unfortunate trajectory. The Gophers fell down 2-0 in the first period and were down 3-0 after two. Cade Fairchild broke Huskies goaltender Mike Lee's shutout bid in the third period, but an empty net goal by St. Cloud was the nail in the coffin for the Gophers, losing Saturday's recap 4-1. The Gophers had tons of chances in the Saturday game, but again could not score a goal when they needed it.

The Gophers played last weekend's games without the services of Mike Hoeffel, who is out for the next several weekends with mono. Hopefully Hoeffel can lace up the skates again soon, because he is one of the few players on this Gopher team that can actually put the puck in the net, and the team misses his offensive output dearly.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend:

3-2-1: Jacob Cepis

Cepis is the only player on the team that deserves a star this weekend, as he's the only guy that seems to care that the team needs wins NOW in order to make the NCAA tournament.

All is not lost, though. I'll post my analysis of the Pairwise rankings and what the Gophers might need to do to make the tournament soon.

Let's hope that the team can bond a little bit when they travel to Anchorage this weekend. We can only hope that they'll have two more wins in the bank when they get back to the mainland!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Signs of Life? Gophers Humiliate Sioux 5-1

If the Gophers end up turning this season around and making a charge into the playoffs, tonight's game was the game where the Gophers turned the corner.

The Gophers (12-10-2, 7-7-2 WCHA) shellacked the visiting Fighting Sioux of North Dakota (12-7-5, 8-7-3 WCHA) 5-1 in Saturday's rematch and earned a key three points in the weekend series after a 3-3 tie Friday.

Saturday's game started off slow, with both teams carrying the play pretty evenly. The Gophers' junior goaltender Alex Kangas made several key saves to keep the game a 0-0 tie late into the first period. Freshman forward Josh Birkholz put a pretty shot high stick side past North Dakota goalie Brad Eidsness to put the Maroon and Gold ahead 1-0 at 18:11 of the first period.

The second period started in much the same way that the first 18 minutes of the first period went: quick-paced, well rounded hockey from both teams. The Gophers got a nice bounce when a puck that Zach Budish swatted at in the faceoff circle fluttered over Eidsness' shoulder into the net for a 2-0 Gopher lead at 14:51 of the period. Then, Tony Lucia's breakaway goal at 18:06 of the second sparked a Golden Gopher rally that lasted the remainder of the game. Jacob Cepis scored another goal just seven seconds later, and the Gophers were off to the races. Goals by Mike Hoeffel and North Dakota's Darcy Zajac in the third period rounded out the scoring.

Especially strong tonight was the play of Alex Kangas. He made all the stops that he was supposed to and many near impossible saves. More about him in the three stars below. Nearly every player on this roster could get a star tonight from the overall team effort on display, but we've gotta keep it at three, so here they are.

Three Gopher Stars of the Night:

3. Josh Birkholz
Birkholz played his typical brand of speed hockey, and he is really beginning to show that he can flash some skill too. Birkholz scored the all-important first goal of the game, and added a measure of toughness that has been lacking so far with this team.

2. Tony Lucia
Lucia wears the captain's "C" on his jersey, and he showed why tonight, tallying a crucial breakaway goal as well as putting in yeoman's work on the penalty kill (the Sioux were 0-6 on the man advantage) and playing a complete game. He was tough when he needed to be, didn't respond to the Sioux's typical aggressive game plan, and bulged the twine when he had the chance. Great game from the captain. The other captain, Ryan Flynn, actually had a very solid game tonight as well. Nice work from the upperclassmen.

1. Alex Kangas
Kangas proved to be too much for the North Dakota offensive attack. He stopped all but one of the Sioux's 35 shots. Many of those shots were point-blank one-timers and redirects. Kangas was on his game all night long. With the Gophers playing well on both sides of the puck in front of him, he and the team earned a huge win against our biggest rival.

The Gophers can get back into the NCAA tournament mix if they keep on winning, and they'll get another good test next weekend as they square off against the St. Cloud State Huskies. Three points or better in that series and the buzz will be that the Gophers are making a serious late-season charge. Here's hoping that tonight's game was just the start!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Gophers Eke Out Gritty Tie on Late Cepis Goal

The Gophers were on track for yet another well-played game in which they fought hard but couldn't score a big goal, only to lose a close one. Then, the team's newest player provided the spark that the team needed and had been waiting for. Transfer forward Jacob Cepis scored the game-tying goal with 2:04 to play in the third period, and the Gophers killed off an overtime Sioux power play to scrape out a tie against the visiting North Dakota Fighting Sioux 3-3.

The Gophers and Sioux played a pretty even first period. The Sioux, however, got on the board first, with a late first period goal by Freshman Danny Kristo. Kristo beat Gopher goalie Alex Kangas with a shot high on Kangas' glove side.

The second period treated the Gophers well. They scored twice in the first three minutes, the first goal a power play tally from Sophomore forward Jordan Schroeder on a shot from the point, and the second an opportunistic chance pounced on by Patrick White. The play continued to be even up throughout the second period until Danny Kristo's second goal of the game at 13:24, which tied it at two goals a piece.

The Sioux took the lead early in the third on a goal by Brad Malone. Malone took a nice pass from behind and to the left of Alex Kangas and slid the puck past the Gopher keeper. The play was still pretty even until there were only two minutes left in the third period, when Jordan Schroeder and Jacob Cepis took an opportunistic 2-on-2 rush and Cepis beat Sioux goaltender Brad Eidsness with a shot from between the circles.

The overtime was fairly uneventful, with no team getting any real good chances, despite a Sioux power play that came from a Nick Leddy cross-checking penalty.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game:

3. Cade Fairchild
Fairchild played solid defense all game, most notably breaking up a Sioux 2-on-1, while adding assists on the Gophers' first two goals of the game. While Fairchild has been a disappointment thus far on the offensive end (only one goal this year) he has played stout defense and continues to lead the defense with his cool head and tape-to-tape passing ability.

2. Jordan Schroeder
Schroeder was "on" the whole game, and he seems to have found some real chemistry with new linemate Jacob Cepis. Schroeder scored his first goal since coming back from the World Junior tournament tonight, and, if he can get his game firing on all cylinders, it would be a tremendous boon for this Gopher program.

1. Jacob Cepis
Cepis scored the game-tying goal with only two minutes left against the Gophers' biggest rival. Need I say more? He was all over the ice tonight, agitating the Sioux with his quickness and even surprising some North Dakota players with some unexpectedly big hits. Cepis will continue to be a big cog in this team's machine for the remainder of the season if this Gopher squad has any chance of playing in the postseason.

The Gophers play the Sioux again tomorrow night in what promises to be a climactic conclusion to this series. Neither team will be fully satisfied with tonight's tie, so expect both teams to come out playing hard tomorrow. The puck drops at 7:00 tomorrow night!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Same Old, Same Old: Gophers Split in Holiday Classic with Pair of Lackluster Performances

After Friday night's tilt against the Bowling Green Falcons, you could have said that the Golden Gophers overcame the rust of their three-week layoff and came back with a gritty third period to win the game. After losing Saturday's game to Northern Michigan, though, even the most ardent Gopher supporters must admit that it was yet another weekend of subpar performances and subpar effort from the Maroon and Gold.

After being outplayed for the first two periods against Bowling Green, the Gophers fought back and scored a couple gutsy goals in the third period, adding an empty netter to win 3-1 on Friday night.

The team played a great first period, outshooting the Wildcats 18-7 in the opening frame. They only got one goal on those 18 shots, though, as Wildcat goaltender Brian Stewart made 48 saves on the night and looked pretty solid throughout (of course, the Gophers make every goaltender look solid, but I digress).

If the excitement of Gopher Hockey returning isn't enough, though, this weekend marked the Gopher debut of forward Jacob Cepis. Cepis, a transfer from Bowling Green, is a small, quick playmaker that can also score some goals. He looked great this weekend, the best player on the ice on Friday against (who else) Bowling Green, and another solid game Saturday, scoring his first ever Gopher goal.

Cepis should play a big role on the team down the stretch, as he provides some scoring punch (one thing that the Gophers severely lack). Hopefully, when Jordan Schroeder returns from his stint on the U.S. World Junior team this weekend, the two can hook up and create some scoring opportunities throughout the rest of the year.

This weekend's Three Gopher Stars:

3. Mike Carman
Carman played solid games both nights, scoring the game-tying goal and adding an assist on Mike Hoeffel's game-winner. Carman was great as usual on the penalty kill and had a good weekend all-in-all.

2. Mike Hoeffel
As mentioned previously, Hoeffel scored the game winning goal with just under three minutes left in the third period. He also scored the first goal of the Northern Michigan game. Hoeffel continues to be the only consistent goal scorer on this Gopher team, and if this Gopher team is going anywhere this year Hoeffel needs to lead them there.

1. Jacob Cepis
Cepis was the best player on the ice all weekend, skating around players, making good passes, and just being a pest for the other team to handle. Cepis also added his first Gopher goal against Northern Michigan. He could be a major piece to the puzzle as Don Lucia hopes to get this team back on track.

The Gophers face off against Harvard this weekend. Harvard has won two games all year, and the Gophers NEED to win this Friday and Saturday to get the season back on track. Look for Jordan Schroeder to come back from the World Junior tournament re-energized and ready to start the second half of the season with a bang. This series, of course, is just a warm up for next weekend's big tilt with the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Seven or Eight points over the next two weekends would be a good sign that this team is back on track.