This weekend's series against the University of Nebraska-Omaha was chock full of storylines. Had the Gophers finally turned their backs on the disappointments of the last several seasons? Could Nebraska-Omaha show that they can compete in the WCHA?
Perhaps the most compelling story of the weekend, though, was centered on the Nebraska-Omaha bench - specifically, the men wearing the suits. UNO's coaching staff includes former Minnesota player and Fighting Sioux head coach Dean Blais, former Minnesota player and Gopher assistant coach Mike Guentzel, and former Minnesota assistant coach Mike Hastings. Blais is many Gopher fans' wish for the next head coach of the Gophers over current coach Don Lucia, while Guentzel has desired the Minnesota head coaching job ever since being passed over in favor of Lucia after Doug Woog was fired. Could the UNO coaching staff get a couple wins in Minnesota's barn and exact revenge on their former team?
Both teams had considerable momentum coming into their respective WCHA conference opener. The Minnesota Gophers started the season last weekend with a sweep of the University of Massachusets Minutemen, and the Mavericks won the Maverick Stampede, their season opening tournament, by beating Clarkson 8-0 and Frozen Four participant RIT 5-3 in the championship game. Something had to give, and as it turned out, that something was the Gophers.
Friday: 5-4 Gopher Loss
One of the hallmarks of the last several disappointing seasons for the Gophers was the inability to put three full periods of solid hockey together. The Maroon and Gold simply could not avoid the "letdown" period that often sank the team. The Gophers had that letdown in the first period of Friday's game, as Nebraska-Omaha scored three goals (the first two of which on the power play) to grab an early 3-0 lead.
The letdown stretched into the second period, as Nebraska-Omaha scored their fourth goal just before the ten minute mark to stretch the lead even further. However, several undisciplined penalties gave the Gophers a chance to get back into the game, and Minnesota took advantage, with Nate Condon netting rebound goal on a 5-on-3 power play and cutting the lead to 4-1. Jake Hansen scored on another rebound in the slot in the final minute of the period to draw the Gophers to within two at 4-2. There was a buzz inside the arena, and the comeback was on.
The Gophers scored another quick goal on the power play at 2:43 of the third period to cut the UNO lead to one at 4-3. UNO was playing on their heels, content to play defense and limit Gopher chances. They did this successfully for about 15 minutes, until Jay Barriball weaved through the neutral zone at 16:46 and unleashed a slapshot that beat Omaha goalie John Faulkner to tie the score at 4 goals a piece. The Gophers showed great grit and tenacity to claw all the way back from a 4-0 hole to tie the game, but the Gophers' defensive lapses came back to haunt them, as a poor decision by senior Kevin Wehrs led to an Omaha 3-on-1, and UNO's Alex Hudson put the puck past Gopher goalie Alex Kangas and into the back of the net at 18:24 of the third period. The Gophers subsequently pulled their goalie, but could not get another goal and had to settle for a close 5-4 loss.
Saturday: 4-2 Gopher Loss
The intensity the Gophers showed in coming back from such a large hole on Friday night should have augured well for a turnaround on Saturday. However, the Gophers succumbed to another letdown period in the first on Saturday. Super-freshman Matt White scored his fifth goal in only his fourth career collegiate game at 3:10 of the first period, all but silencing a rowdy crowd and putting the Gophers on their heels. Zahn Raubenheimer added Nebraska-Omaha's second goal of the period, and the Gophers again trudged into the locker room for the first intermission looking up at a multi-goal deficit.
The Gophers couldn't get much going in the second period, either, and a Matt Ambroz goal late in the period increased the UNO lead to 3-0. Goalie John Faulkner once again stumped the Gopher offense, and Minnesota once again found itself needing a sizable comeback in the last period to avoid a weekend sweep.
The Gophers got on the scoreboard via a deflection off of an Omaha defender on a one-timer by defenseman Kevin Wehrs. Wehrs, the goat on Friday night whose mistake directly led to Omaha's fifth and game-winning goal, also assisted on the second goal by putting a slapper within deflection range of center Erik Haula, whose deft redirection fluttered past Faulkner and got the Gophers within one goal at 3-2 with just over three minutes remaining. Minnesota didn't put up much of a fight the rest of the way, and a late Omaha goal with Gopher goalie Alex Kangas pulled officially ended the scoring, as well as the Gophers' chances in the game. Nebraska-Omaha went on to win the game 4-2, outshooting the Gophers 48 to 31 in the process.
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend
Tough to pick three standout players this weekend, but it's my job to do the tough work around here :)
Third Star: Nate Schmidt
Schmidt only played in Saturday's tilt, but he made an impression on me. A freshman defensemen, Schmidt was not afraid to launch slapshots from the point and played pretty consistent defense, both things that the Gophers have been sorely lacking recently. Also impressive is that Schmidt was said to have suffered some sort of injury in practice in the week before the game. Schmidt's tough-nosed defense and toughness in playing a good game even at less than 100% gets him the third star of the weekend.
Second Star: Alex Kangas
Although Kangas gave up eight goals on the weekend, he was hung out to dry numerous times by the porous Gopher defense. Kangas made lots of quality saves and kept his team in the game both nights. I think that Alex needs to do a better job of controlling his rebounds, as many of UNO's goals this weekend came on rebound chances. However, goals aren't only the fault of the goalie, and the defense in front of the Gopher net needs to clear the rebounds more efficiently. I also wonder whether Kangas' temper will harm the team in the future. As an alternate captain and a goaltender, Kangas needs to be a rock in net and project an attitude of calm to the whole team. His visible displays of anger and frustration after goals could be a sign that he wants to be better, or it could be a sign that he does not trust the team in front of him. A calming presence at the back could be a good thing for this inexperienced Gopher squad.
First Star: Nate Condon
Maybe the most impressive freshman this far into the young season, Condon is a quick player who isn't afraid to throw his weight around and go into the high-traffic areas to get control of the puck. Condon impressed this weekend with his hustle as well as his scoring touch, netting the first Gopher goal on Friday that helped jump-start the Minnesota comeback. Condon should be a fixture in the Gopher lineup this year as a bottom-six forward and on the power play. Great first weekend in the WCHA by Nate Condon.
Even though the Gophers came out of the series with the University of Nebraska-Omaha with two losses, I like what this Minnesota team is made of. The team fought back to make close games out of what looked like blowouts, outscoring UNO 6-2 in the final 23:30 of each game. However, as mentioned above, hockey games are 60 minutes long, and the Gophers cannot afford to take the first half of any games off if they want to make some noise this season. The defense needs to improve, true, but most importantly the whole team needs to play hard for three full periods every game. That is on the coaching staff and the upper-classmen: they are the ones that need to prepare the team to play with a purpose each and every shift of the game.
I don't know, but Dean Blais, Mike Guentzel and Mike Hastings might have popped the cork on a few bottles of champagne following the away sweep of the Gophers. They exacted almost perfect revenge on the University of Minnesota, and it was clear that their Nebraska-Omaha squad was better coached than their Gopher counterparts. If you're the UNO coaching staff, how sweet it is.
The Gophers take on St. Cloud State University next weekend. Both teams need wins, as St. Cloud has scuffled out of the gate following a gaudy preseason national ranking. It should be a battle of two desperate teams, although the Gophers and St. Cloud rarely need any excuse to get up for that matchup. Should be a fun weekend at Mariucci Arena!