Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Whole New Series: Gophers Trounced 6-0 Friday but Victorious Saturday to Force Deciding Game Three

This has been a confusing and disappointing year for Gopher Hockey faithful. The team's record, 17-17-3 through the regular season, leaves much to be desired. The Gophers had been shut out five separate times during the regular season, tying a 75-year-old record for futility.

However, fans have seen flashes of brilliance in this team, like the 6-1 drubbing of Wisconsin to wrap up the regular season, or the midseason 5-1 pounding of North Dakota, or even the very close 3-1 loss at #1 Denver in February.

The Gophers often look like a team that can beat the best team in the nation one night and lose to the worst team in the country the next. Throughout the first two games of their best-of-three playoff series in Grand Forks, both of those Gopher teams have shown up to play. The question remains: which team will show up in tomorrow's all-important game three between the Gophers and the Sioux?

Friday's game was an embarrassment, with North Dakota seizing the lead on a Danny Kristo goal just 99 seconds into the first period. Kristo took the puck away from Nick Larson right in the slot after Larson had been handcuffed on an awful pass by Gopher defenseman Cade Fairchild (awful in both the decision to pass the puck as well as the execution of the pass itself) and put it past Gopher netminder Alex Kangas. The 1-0 lead was a lead that North Dakota would only add to throughout the remainder of the game. The Sioux added a shorthanded goal by Christian VandeVelde and a powerplay goal by Brad Malone in the first period to make the score 3-0 at the first intermission.

The Gophers came out sloppy and continued their sloppy play throughout the remainder of the game. North Dakota tacked on one more goal in the second period and two more goals in the third to finish off the Gophers 6-0. It was the Gophers' sixth shutout against this year, a new team record. The loss meant that the Gophers had their backs against the wall - a loss on Saturday would signal the end of the season, while a win would extend it at least one more day.

If Jekyll showed up Friday night wearing a Gopher uniform, Saturday was Hyde's turn to don the Maroon and Gold. The Gophers got on the board first, on a powerplay goal in the game's opening period by Mike Hoeffel. The goal was set up by a nifty pass from Jacob Cepis just below the near circle to Hoeffel just outside the crease.

The Gophers took a one-goal lead into the second period, but it did not take long for North Dakota to tie the game up at one goal each. Corban Knight scored at 7:03 of the second period on a rebound chance to knot the game up. Although both teams had chances, good goaltending kept both the Gophers and the Sioux in the game. No more goals were scored in the second period, leaving the Gophers perhaps just 20 minutes remaining in their seasons.

Just past the midway point of the third period, it seemed like this Gophers squad was toast. Matt Frattin scored on a shot from the slot with 9:16 left in the period to give the Sioux a 2-1 lead. However, unlike most games this year, the Gophers did not go down without a fight. A gutsy play by winger Jacob Cepis gave the Gophers a late powerplay, and Cepis decided to make up for a missed breakaway attempt just minutes earlier by scoring the game-tying goal. Cepis called his own number and fired a wrist-shot from the near circle that trickled under Sioux goalie Brad Eidsness' pads and into the net. The goal, which came at 12:10 of the period, gave the Gophers new life, and they took advantage of their surge when a semi-fluky shot by Seth Helgeson found its way into the back of the net at 12:58 of the period to give the Gophers their second one-goal lead of the game at 3-2. After this third goal, the Gophers controlled play, and with Jordan Schroeder adding an empty-net tally at 19:59, the Gophers kept their season alive with a 4-2 win.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend (so far):

3) Nick Leddy

Leddy continues to impress me with his calm demeanor and confident approach to defending. He is excellent on breakout passes, and always maintains his composure even in the face of the most harrowing forecheck. Only a freshman, Leddy is already the anchor of this D-corps, and his consistently solid play is important for this team as a whole.

2) Mike Hoeffel

Hoeffel had a goal and an assist in the Saturday game, and his point production is vital to this Gophers squad. The leading goal scorer with 13 on the year, when Hoeffel is clicking the team scores, and when this team scores they win. The Gophers have only lost two games this year when scoring three or more goals, and, with Hoeffel the most likely player to score on this team, his offense is crucial.

1) Jacob Cepis

Cepis is listed at 5'8" and 175 lbs, but he plays like he's 6'4" and 250 lbs. He does not know that he's the smallest player on the ice, and his tenacity and grit are a refreshing respite from the humdrum effort most of these Gopher players have put in all year. In just 20 games on the year, Cepis has already tallied 19 total points (8 goals, 11 assists) and is the team's fifth leading scorer despite having played in just over half of the team's games. Cepis is all over the ice whenever his line is out there, and he works so hard that he draws penalties and wins powerplays for his team. This kid is a huge difference-maker, and with a game-tying goal as well as the first assist on a game-winner, his contributions this weekend have been nothing short of outstanding. Right now, he is the best player on the team, and let's hope that his effort is contagious.

The third and deciding game of this best-of-three series will determine which team travels to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five tournament. If the Gophers want to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, they need to win the WCHA tournament altogether and the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament that accompanies it. The puck drops at 7:00 PM in Grand Forks - I'll be glued to the TV!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gophers Sloppy in Duluth, Disappointing at the Target Center and Stellar at Mariucci to Round out the Regular Season

After beating the Duluth Bulldogs on the road last Friday night, the Golden Gophers still had an outside chance to make the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. After one of their worst performances of the year the next night, though, the Minnesota Gophers will more than likely need to win the WCHA conference tournament to make the big dance.

On Duluth's Senior Night, the Gophers lost 3-0 to a fired up Bulldogs squad that was still fighting for its NCAA tournament life. With the score tied 0-0 in the first period, Minnesota hit two posts that, if either would have gone in, may have changed the complexion of the game. The first post was off a wicked wrist shot by Mike Hoeffel, with the second coming on a Jordan Schroeder shot off of a nice 2-on-1 rush. After those two posts, the Gophers seemed dejected, as if they felt like they could not get one past Bulldog goalie Brady Hjelle and into the net. It may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, because Hjelle only needed one of the Bulldogs three goals to beat the Gophers, picking up the shutout.

As good as Friday night's game against Duluth was, Saturday was as bad a game as I have seen the Gophers play all year. They were sloppy with the puck connecting on very few passes, and they did not give consistent effort throughout the game.

The hope was that playing an arch-rival like the Wisconsin Badgers the next weekend would fire up the team. It may have taken a game longer than expected, but the fire was back for at least one night.

Friday's game against the Badgers was played at the Target Center. It was first college hockey game at the Target Center in at least five years, and it showed in the quality of the ice. Numerous times the referees had to stop play to patch holes in the ice, which took away from the flow and excitement of the game as a whole.

Excitement was not in short order in the first period, though, as a quick shorthanded breakaway goal by Ryan Flynn of all players resulted in an early 1-0 lead for the Maroon and Gold. However, Wisconsin quickly tied up the game at 1-1 on a Craig Smith goal at 6:53 of the period. Wisconsin then took a 2-1 lead that they would hold for nearly the rest of the game on a Justin Schultz tally in the 18th minute of the first period.

No goals were scored in the second period, which was notable more for the lack of decent hockey than for anything resembling a scoring chance. Both teams were sloppy with the puck, and action was interrupted by whistles numerous times.

The third period got off to a better start for the Maroon and Gold, as Nick Larson deflected a Kevin Wehrs slapshot past goalie Scott Gudmandson of Wisconsin to tie the game at two goals a piece. After the game-tying goal, play was intense and furious as Wisconsin and Minnesota battled to get the go-ahead goal. Wisconsin was the team that got it, as the disappearing-act Gopher defensemen let Craig Smith dawdle around in the high slot before beating Alex Kangas with a brilliant shot in the upper corner of the net. Wisconsin held on despite a comeback effort by the Gophers with the goalie pulled to win 3-2.

This game was also notable for a little bit of bad luck on the part of the Gophers. Three times the referees went into the replay booth to see video replays of potential Gopher goals, and three times the referees waived them off. The first play, a Jacob Cepis breakaway that clanged off of the crossbar, was a relatively straightforward call - the puck never went into the net, so no goal. The second play, a Mike Hoeffel five-on-three powerplay goal, was waived off because Hoeffel was six inches inside the crease. The third goal, occurring during a Gopher flurry in front of the Badger net, was waived off because the net had become dislodged a fraction of a second before the puck crossed the goal line. Three tough calls that went against the Gophers. When the team struggles to get goals, having three waived off is not a good omen for your chances in the game.

The Gophers must have taken the beatings to heart in the Sunday game against Wisconsin, because they put the rout onto the third-ranked Badgers. On senior day, the eldest class put on a show, getting two goals each from Mike Carman and Tony Lucia, as well as assists from Carman (2), Lucia and Flynn, on the way to a commanding 6-1 triumph. The Gophers scored five powerplay goals in the game, as the Badgers, frustrated by the play of the Gopher team, sent a steady stream of their own players to the penalty box. Alex Kangas kept the Gophers in the game until their breakout in the second period, stopping 26 of 27 Wisconsin shots.

The Gophers finished the regular season in seventh place in the WCHA, and will head up to Grand Forks to face the North Dakota Fighting Sioux in a best-of-three rivalry matchup where anything can happen. Both teams usually play for keeps in this series, so we'll see if it can motivate the Gophers to play their best hockey of the year this weekend.