Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gophers Continue Winning Ways with Victory over Minnesota-Duluth Friday Night

Don't look now, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers are quietly putting together a playoff run.

The Gophers (11-12-2 WCHA, 16-15-2 overall) defeated a reeling UMD Bulldogs (14-10-1, 18-14-1) 3-2 on Friday night at the DECC in Duluth.

Plenty of fans of both teams were on hand to watch the Gophers pick up an emotional and hard-fought win on a gritty Jacob Cepis goal at 14:59 of the third period.

Nick Larson started the scoring out for the Gophers at 12:59 of the first period, taking a nifty pass from Jake Hansen on a 2-on-1 and depositing the puck past Bulldog goaltender Brady Hjelle above his left shoulder.

The Gophers controlled the play for much of the first and second periods, and were rewarded for their hard work with a five-minute power play on a boarding major. The Gophers, however, failed to score on the lengthy man-advantage, and the kill breathed new life into the Bulldogs team. After getting a power play late in the second period, forward David Grun put away a rebound that skittered across the crease with just four seconds left in the second period to knot the game at one goal a piece.

The third period was a emotional affair, with many skirmishes breaking out after the whistles had blown. The Gophers took advantage of a fortunate break at 9:13 of the period. Gopher defenseman Cade Fairchild had just come out of the penalty box and was on a partial breakaway after a nice pass from Jordan Schroeder. A Bulldog player was racing back to intercept Fairchild, but got tangled up with the referee, leaving the Gopher with a clear path to the net, which he buried five-hole.

The Bulldogs got a power play later in the period which they capitalized on quickly, getting a goal from Travis Oleksuk. However, after a broken play in front of Hjelle, Gopher forward Jacob Cepis whacked the puck into the net from the doorstep after several tries. The Gophers held off a hard-charging Bulldog squad in the last minutes of the game to secure the victory 3-2.

Three Gophers Stars of the Game

3. Alex Kangas

The Gopher goaltender stood tall in this game, stopping 32 of 34 Bulldog shots that came his way. The Bulldog student section, known as The Penalty Box, is known for getting on opposing goaltenders' nerves, but Kangas maintained his composure to lead the Gophers to victory.

2. Jacob Cepis

Cepis scored the game-winning goal on a gritty play, and gritty is the perfect word to describe the Junior forward's tenacity in this game and on the season as a whole. Cepis played with his typical blend of speed and annoying agitation to the opposing team, and he came up with the big play when the team needed it the most.

1. Nick Larson

Larson scored the first goal on a beautiful play, and was a solid contributor throughout, generating more scoring chances from the bottom two lines than we have seen yet this year. While I do not know if this game is of the breakout type for Larson, we have been seeing much more scoring from the checking lines during the Gophers current three-game winning streak. Larson will not likely be able to step up in every remaining game this year, but I no longer doubt that some other role player will. With scoring depth unlike anything followers of the Maroon and Gold have seen in several seasons, this team could compete in the rapidly-approaching postseason.

The Gophers have another huge game tonight. A win would put them officially back on the bubble for both the NCAA tournament and the race for home ice in the WCHA. Keep winning and the Gophers could see themselves in St. Paul for the Final Five and, perhaps, for the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gophers Keep Playoff Hopes Alive with Sweep of Colorado College

After a disappointing two losses against Denver University, the Gophers could have given up hope for the season. They apparently decided to keep fighting.

The Gophers handed then #7 Colorado College two convincing losses, dominating nearly the whole of both weekend games.

Friday's game featured a tense first period, with Colorado College getting several excellent chances to score on Gopher goaltender Alex Kangas. Kangas, however, made quality saves on every shot the Tigers put on goal in the first period.

The goalie gave the team a chance to pull ahead, and the Gophers took that chance at 19:59 of the first period, with Patrick White lighting the lamp just before the horn sounded.

Both goalies pitched shutouts in the second period, with the Gopher defensemen playing stout defense and forcing Colorado College to settle for second-rate scoring chances.

Jordan Schroeder scored the separation goal at 1:38 of the third period, with Josh Birkholz adding a highlight-reel tally as he flipped the puck over a Tiger defender just inside the offensive blue-line before sniping a shot in the top corner past CC goalie and Minnesota native Joe Howe. Kangas came up with the first Gopher shutout of the season on arguably the best team-defensive game that the Gophers have played.

Saturday afternoon seemed to be just an extension of the Gopher domination of the last two periods on Friday night. The Gophers again got on the board first with a 5-on-3 powerplay goal by Mike Hoeffel at 13:11 of the first period. Just 40 seconds later, David Fischer gave the Gophers their second goal on a nice one-time pass from Josh Birkholz. Colorado College didn't waste any time, though, with Rylan Schwartz scoring on a nifty left-to-right deke across the Gopher goalmouth just 20 seconds after the Fischer goal. But the scoring spree wasn't over. 42 seconds later at 14:53, Aaron Ness chipped a shot past goalie Joe Howe, who was momentarily stunned after taking a hard shot to the facemask.

Every time Colorado College mounted a charge in this game, the Gophers had an answer. Gopher Josh Birkholz opened the period with a goal at 2:53. Colorado College played surprisingly without haste until Kris Fredheim's powerplay goal at 16:05 of the period, bringing the score of the game to 4-2. Just a minute and a half later, the Gophers struck back, with Nick Leddy scoring the separation goal and eventual game winner at 17:48.

CC wouldn't go down without a fight, though. All the haste that they lacked to open the second period they came out with in the third. Gabe Guentzel scored just 14 seconds into the third to cut the Gopher lead to 5-3. Three minutes later, Gopher defenseman Kevin Wehrs took a slapshot into a Tiger Tyler Johnson's shins and gave up a breakaway, which he put past Kangas to make the game 5-4. The first ten minutes of the third period were the only tense moments in the game. The Gophers settled down and controlled the remainder of the period, getting a goal with little more than three minutes left to clinch the win for the Maroon and Gold. Tony Lucia added an empty netter to make the final score of the game 7-4.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend:

3. Jacob Cepis

Cepis was a spark plug, hustling on both ends of the ice and setting up three Gopher goals on the weekend. This kid continues to be a needed bit of offense for this team and his addition gives the Gophers a fighting chance.

2. David Fischer

I'm not the biggest Fischer fan in the world, but he played a good series this weekend, getting a goal and playing the kind of physical, smart defense that we should expect from this first-round NHL draft pick. If he can begin to play like this more often down the stretch he can be a key asset on a team that lacks solid defenseive play.

1. Josh Birkholz

This freshman has blazing speed, and if he can start matching physical play and some sniping prowess he could be one of the team's best forwards in years to come. Right now, though, he's just a fourth line forward. If he can begin chipping in some goals and points from the fourth line the Gophers can become a more effective scoring team and might be a threat come playoff time.

The Gophers have another big series coming up next weekend in Duluth. They will face a reeling Bulldogs team that has lost two in a row and six of their last eight. With the Gophers playing well and the Bulldogs struggling this could be a great opportunity for the Maroon and Gold to get four more needed points in the WCHA. Every win counts, and the Gophers need to keep winning to keep their NCAA tournament chances alive. It should be an exciting weekend of hockey!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Do the Gophers Still Have a Chance to Make the Dance? An Introduction to the Pairwise Rankings

I know that many less-than-die-hard fans pay attention to the national polls, which rank the top 20 teams in the nation by a vote of coaches and sportswriters. Whenever I see a college hockey game, the television crews talk about rankings in the USCHO or USA Today poll when discussing a team's position on the national scene. Well, I'm here today to tell you that you should more or less never pay attention to those polls, because they mean absolutely nothing toward getting into the NCAA tournament.

What you should be paying attention to is the Pairwise Rankings, a computer-based formula that spits out its own ranking system. While it may not be the best or most accurate method of truly telling which team is truly the best team, the Pairwise (PWR for short) holds the unique distinction of being the method that the NCAA uses to select its tournament field.

A quick explanation of the Pairwise follows: the Pairwise compares one team to another in four basic criteria - RPI, record against common opponents, record against other teams under consideration (top 25 teams in the country), and head-to-head record. Each of the first three categories counts as one point, while each head-to-head win against the other team counts as a point. The team with the most points wins, and in the event of a tie the team with the higher RPI wins. Each team under consideration is compared with each other team under consideration, and the team that has won the most team-to-team comparisons against the other 25 teams is considered the "best team" and is ranked first. Take a look at the "Individual Comparisons Table" in the link above to see a little better example of what I mean. Here, you can click on any individual comparison and see exactly why one team beat out another.

So, the question is: where are the Gophers ranked, how do they improve their standing, and can they improve enough to make the field of 16 that makes the NCAA tournament?

Well, let's take a look. The Gophers are currently 22nd in the Pairwise, right ahead of Northern Michigan and right behind Alaska-Fairbanks. In order to be sufficiently comfortable, the Gophers would like to be sitting in 14th place. The NCAA field holds 16 teams, but each conference's playoff champion gets an "auto-bid" into the NCAA field, which means that the winners of Atlantic Hockey and the ECAC could very probably make the tournament via the auto-bid even though they have Pairwise rankings lower than 16th. This would kick out those teams on the cusp, so anything less than 14th is living dangerously.

In order for the Gophers to get up into 14th place, they would need to vault over eight teams. The good news for the Gophers is that they have a very tough schedule down the stretch. Beating good teams raises your RPI faster than does beating cupcakes. Games upcoming against Denver (2nd in the current Pairwise Rankings), Colorado College (T-7), Minnesota-Duluth (T-9) and Wisconsin (3) give the Gophers great chances to beat quality teams and improve their standing. Wins against such good teams will boost our RPI, which is a huge driver in the Pairwise Rankings as a whole. We are also likely to play either Wisconsin or Colorado College again in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, which gives the Gophers yet another chance to win some games against good teams.

Right now, I'm going to co on record and say that if the Gophers go at least 4-2-2 in their last eight regular season games, win two games in the first round of the WCHA playoffs to make it to the WCHA Final Five, and win at least one game at the Final Five, I think they will have done enough to make the tournament. Looking at the teams between us and 14th in the Pairwise shows me that many of these teams are from out east. We don't have many head-to-head problems to deal with because of that fact, and most of the comparisons hinge on the RPI number. A simple flipping of the RPI comparison between the Gophers and these teams should result in the Gophers winning the comparison (remember, RPI is the tiebreaker). I know this is a VERY tall order given the quality of our opponents down the stretch, but it's do or die time for this team, and I still have faith that there's something good hiding behind the poor record.

If the Gophers can somehow manage to win or tie every remaining series, they'll see their RPI jump and should start creeping up on some of the teams ahead of them in the Pairwise. If I had to wager, I'd probably still bet against the Gophs making the NCAA Tournament field. But, so long as this team can find some kind of a spark, I think they still have a chance. We'll see how they come out this weekend against Denver. This weekend is as big as it gets for the Gophers chances. A sweep will probably move us up three or four rankings, while getting swept will all but put the last nail in the coffin.

What do you think? Should we stick a fork in the Gophers' chances? Do you think they still have a shot to make the tournament? Post your thoughts in the comments below!