The Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey team has shown flashes of brilliance amidst signs of mediocrity this year. The team has played lock-down defense for a period here and there during some games. They've exploded for multiple goals in several periods this year. However, the team has put both offense and defense together for a full game maybe once or twice in the past several years.
The Gophers were coming off one of those "put it all together" games last Sunday, a hard-fought 2-1 victory against a good St. Cloud State team. Could Minnesota bottle that effort and carry it into Colorado Springs for a tough two game series against the Colorado College Tigers?
Friday: 4-1 Gopher Win
With Kent Patterson getting his second straight start in goal, the Gophers looked to improve to 3-0-0 with the former Blake standout between the pipes. The first period got off to a cagey start, with both teams attempting to establish their game plans. The Gophers got on the board first at 10:53 of the period, with freshman center Erik Haula scoring his second goal of the season on a shorthanded odd-man rush. The tally was the Gophers first shorthanded goal of the season. The goal marked the first time the Gophers scored first in a game since the second UMass contest, when senior captain Jay Barriball scored a natural hat-trick in the first period and the Gophers held on to win 5-4.
The Gophers held the advantage in play during the second half of the first period as it seemed like Haula's goal allowed Minnesota to play the game at their own pace and tempo. The Gophers generated several scoring chances before Taylor Matson popped a long rebound past CC goalie Joe Howe to give the Gophers a two-goal cushion heading into the intermission.
The second period played out very similar to the beginning of the first, with both teams trying to establish their own game plans and neither team getting much traction in that effort. Midway through the period, however, Colorado College's Jaden Schwartz beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson to bring the Tigers within one goal at 2-1. Both teams played well throughout the rest of the period, with Colorado College edging the Gophers in shots at 10-8, but as both teams skated into the locker rooms at intermission the score remained 2-1.
The third period was fast and tense. Colorado College generated several great scoring chances but Kent Patterson was up to the task, stopping quality shot after quality shot that he faced. The Gopher forwards and defensemen played a huge role in front of Patterson, clearing out rebounds and would-be CC goal-scorers from in front of the Minnesota net. The score remained at 2-1 until late in the third, when a botched CC clearing attempt resulted in an Aaron Ness slapshot from the point, which was redirected by Taylor Matson and past Tiger goalie Howe for a much-needed insurance goal. The tally was the nail in the coffin for the Tigers, who pulled their goalie but to no avail when Jay Barriball buried the puck in the back of the empty net to give the Gophers a 4-1 lead and a hard-fought road win.
Saturday: 9-4 Gopher Win
Puck luck is an interesting thing. It is elusive, and it has an uncanny ability to bite your team when it hurts the worst. One other important fact about puck luck is that the Gophers have had very little of it over the last several years. Goals bounce in off of your own defenseman's skates, shots hit the post and stay out on breakaway chances, you name it and the Gophers have had it recently. However, some of that ethereal puck luck finally found its way into the Minnesota dressing room Saturday night, where nearly every shot the team took found its way into the back of the net.
Kent Patterson was the starting goaltender again on Saturday, and he didn't have to wait long to be playing with the lead - just 53 seconds to be exact. Zach Budish put the puck past Tiger goalie Joe Howe to grab an early lead. Colorado College would even the game up soon after, though, on a Jaden Schwartz goal at 10:56 of the first. Minnesota responded right back with two quick goals - a Taylor Matson strike at 14:02 of the period and a Patrick White tally at 17:14 of the frame - to give the Gophers that all-important two goal cushion. However, a powerplay goal in the final ten seconds of the period by the Tigers' Jaden Schwartz cut the Gopher lead to one heading into the first intermission.
The Gopher coaching staff could not have been happy with the late-period goal that allowed CC right back into the game. Whatever they said in the locker room, I hope they remember it. Minnesota came out in the second period and scored three unanswered goals in the first four minutes of the period, getting the tallies from Jacob Cepis, Jay Barriball and Nate Condon to give the team a commanding 6-2 lead. Colorado College answered back less than a minute after the Condon goal, with Gabe Guentzel scoring to draw the Tigers back within three. Nate Condon's second goal of the period would come next at the 10:03 mark of the frame, and a Taylor Johnson powerplay goal for CC would complete the scoring in a wild second period in which six goals were scored. The Gophers had scored seven goals in the first two periods, but they'd given up four of their own, and the game was nowhere close to over.
Minnesota took an early penalty in the third peirod, and you got the sense that if CC scored on this early powerplay they would be right back in the game and would have a great chance to win. However, early in the powerplay Nate Condon and Cade Fairchild went on a 2-on-1 shorthanded for the Gophers. Fairchild took a pass from Condon and made a nifty backhand-to-forehand move to beat Joe Howe and score the Gophers' second shorthanded goal in as many nights. The goal gave the Gophers an 8-4 lead and demoralized the Tiger players, who just moments before had believed they had a great chance of winning the game. Tom Serratore would add a late goal to give the Gophers an insurmountable five goal lead at 9-4, which happened to be the final score of the game.
Throughout the contest, Gopher goalie Kent Patterson was good, not great. Fortunately, he did not need to be on his "A" game as the team provided enough offense to win the game. Patterson is now 4-0-0 on the year, and is near the top of the WCHA leaderboards in goals against average (2.37) and saves percentage (.920). Patterson's solid play of late has left coach Don Lucia no choice but to give Patterson more playing time. Having a solid 1-2 goaltender rotation is something that good Gopher teams have had in the past, and hopefully the Patterson-Kangas tandem can backstop the Maroon and Gold to the Frozen Four in St. Paul this spring.
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend
Third Star: Kent Patterson
Patterson had himself a pretty good weekend. In front of him, the Gophers won two crucial games. Patterson shone brightest on Friday night when the team needed him the most, and his calm, consistent game might have been drowned out by more flashy play on the offensive side of the puck. Patterson is always in good position, and he seems to be a goalie who stakes his claim by eliminating unnecessary movement. Although he wasn't as sharp on Saturday, his timely saves kept the team ahead. For winning two important games, Kent Patterson receives the #3 star.
Second Star: Nate Condon
With all the talk about super-freshmen Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad coming into the season, it's the fast, gritty play of Nate Condon that has me the most intrigued. Condon, a playmaker with the Fargo Force of the USHL, has utilized his speed and tenacity to the utmost while wearing the Maroon and Gold, and it's paid off for the Wisconsin native to the tune of three goals and three assists on the year. Five of those six points came in Saturday night's game, as the freshman tallied two goals and three assists to lead the Gophers past the Tigers in an old-time shootout. For a strong performance Saturday night, Nate Condon receives the #2 star.
First Star: Taylor Matson
Sometimes you don't know what you're missing until it's gone. That describes Taylor Matson's impact in the Gopher lineup in a nutshell. After missing nearly the entire season with injuries both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Matson is back with a vengeance in his junior campaign. Matson scored both the game-winning goal and the crucial insurance tally in Friday night's game before tacking on the team's second goal in the Saturday contest. Matson's value is even more apparent when watching him play. Fast and good defensively, Matson has moved up to center the third line and plays an important role on the penalty kill. For all-around contributions to the team, as well as a three-goal weekend, Taylor Matson receives the #1 star.
The Gophers certainly aren't the worst team in the country. While they may end up somewhere around the middle of the WCHA, this team has now shown that it can win both a high-scoring game and a defense-first type of contest. It has goaltenders who can stop the puck and it has forwards who can put it into the net. Defense is a team effort, and if the forwards can buy into helping out the defensemen, this team could post quite a few wins down the road.
The Gophers have the hated Badgers this upcoming weekend at home in Minneapolis. This should be a statement series for both teams. Wisconsin, the national runners-up last season, lost a ton of talent and are a big question mark heading into WCHA play. The Gophers can skate and score with anybody, but will Wisconsin's traditional stifling defense be able to keep the Gophers off the board for long enough to win? It should be an exciting weekend of hockey! Stay tuned :)