Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gophers Take on CCHA's Michigan, Michigan State in College Hockey Showcase this Weekend

This weekend the Gophers square off against Michigan State and Michigan in the College Hockey Showcase, the traditional Thanksgiving-weekend "tournament" that pits historic hockey rivals Michigan and Michigan State against Minnesota and Wisconsin. There are rumors circulating that this year could very well be the last year of the Showcase, as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez has pulled UW from the showcase next year. While I'll be sad to see the showcase go, here's hoping what could be the last one goes Minnesota's way.

The Gophers will face off against Michigan State Friday night and will play Michigan Sunday afternoon (Gopher Football plays Iowa on Saturday, which explains the Friday-Sunday dates for hockey).

Michigan State is having a down year this year, carrying a 4-6-3 overall record and a 2-6-1 mark in the CCHA. They started off the season strong at 3-0-3 with three big points coming against now number 10 ranked Maine. However, the Spartans are reeling of late, having lost six of their last seven contests.

Michigan, however, is its usual solid self, currently sitting eighth in the polls after an 8-3-3 start including a split with Nebraska-Omaha. Red Berenson's team is always skilled and can always fly up and down the ice, so expect this game to be a shootout between the Gophers and the Wolverines.

The Gophers, of course, are riding a little momentum of their own, having swept Michigan Tech in Houghton, MI last weekend. One of the big mysteries is whether or not senior goaltender Alex Kangas will be between the pipes at all this weekend, as Kent Patterson has played surprisingly well in usurping the starting job from the perennial favorite Kangas. My money is on the goalies splitting duties this weekend, with Kangas getting the Michigan State game and Patterson between the pipes for the game against Michigan. I'll be at both games so I will be able to provide the recaps and insights that you've come to expect this weekend!

Go Gophers!

Minnesota Gophers Win Both Games in Houghton, Sweep at Michigan Tech

Last weekend the Gopher Hockey team went up to Houghton, Michigan to face the Michigan Tech Huskies. Although the Huskies have been cellar-dwellers in the WCHA for the past fifteen years, they always are tough at home and teams don't often come back from Houghton with four points. The Gophers, powered by Mike Hoeffel's four goal weekend, won two important games (Friday 6-4 and Saturday 4-1) and netted four big points to stay in the hunt for the WCHA title.

I was not able to see the games, as Fox Sports North did not carry them from Houghton, so I will refer you to the USCHO recaps of the game. Friday night's recap is HERE and Saturday night's recap is HERE

I was able to listen to much of the games, though, and was able to form some opinions. Here were my thoughts:

1) I was very surprised that Patterson played both nights. He did get the win on Friday, but gave up four goals in the process. I would've expected Kangas to play Saturday. Maybe Coach Lucia is starting to trust Patterson? He's now 6-0-1 when backstopping the Maroon and Gold, so what's not to trust?

2) Mike Hoeffel had a big weekend, and it's about time. Hoeffel needs to be one of the big goal scoring threats on this team if the Gophers are going to have a chance to contend. With the four goal weekend, Hoeffel now has seven goals to his name this year and is fourth on the team in scoring with 12 points in 12 games. It's good to have another imminent offensive threat mixed into those top six forwards - that can only open up space for Jay Barriball and Erik Haula.

3) It sounded like Saturday night's contest was Nick Bjugstad's coming out party. He scored his first Gopher goal on an empty-netter with one second left in the game, but it was his stickhandling and playmaking abilities throughout the game that left Michigan Tech players in the dust. Coach Lucia put Bjugstad on the wing and kept Condon centering the second line (something I mentioned in my last post) which appeared to be good for all parties. Hopefully Bjugstad can continue to dazzle the rest of the season.

4) I don't care what anyone says about these being "easy" wins... there's never an easy win in the WCHA and the Gophers came away with four big points when they needed them. Minnesota is now sitting at fifth in the conference at 11 points, two points behind Nebraska-Omaha (who has played two less games than the Gophers) and three points behind North Dakota. I think the Gophers have done what they needed to do thus far to keep themselves in the race, and I think a second-half surge is possible given this team's scoring prowess (sixth in the country at 3.83 goals per game, which ranks third in the conference behind Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth). This is a team that could very well get better as the year goes on and be in prime position come playoff time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gopher Hockey Injury Update: Mono-Stricken Bjugstad, Parenteau Return to Health, Lineup

Don't look now, but there's actually good news hovering around the University of Minnesota Men's Hockey team this week.

After a string of unfortunate illnesses and injuries, Gopher coach Don Lucia stated in his weekly radio show Monday night that four players that had been out due to injury or illness would return to the lineup this weekend.

Most importantly, this weekend's slate of games against the Michigan Tech Huskies should be the first games back for Nick Bjugstad, who was forced out of the last five games with Mononucleosis. Bjugstad left as the center of the second line, but his return to that spot could be complicated with the emergence of Nate Condon, who has blossomed centering the number two line. Bjugstad struggled playing center on the second line in his five games, posting just one assist and playing fairly ineffectually on both sides of the ice. I would like to see him moved to the wing and have the second line feature Condon, Bjugstad and Jacob Cepis, but I have a feeling Coach Lucia will keep Bjugstad at center, forcing Condon down to the third line and Taylor Matson down to the fourth line.

Lucia also confirmed that Gophers Nick Larson, Patrick White and Jake Parenteau are all healthy and available to play this weekend. Larson was nursing an ankle injury suffered several weeks ago in practice. Expect him to play extended minutes this weekend, as Larson's penalty killing abilities were missed with him out. White had been suffering from the flu, but Coach Lucia stated that he should be back and healthy come the weekend. Parenteau is the real surprise here. He came down with mono just a week or two ago, but Lucia speculated that he may have had the disease before because his body was able to fight it off much more quickly than normal. So quickly that Parenteau is available to play this weekend.

Of course, Zach Budish is still out for the season with a torn ACL, but he will be able to apply for a medical redshirt so he should enter next season as a sophomore. Still, that is a big blow to a team that could have used the skills Budish brought to the table.

There is no television broadcast of the games this weekend, but an online stream can be found on Michigan Tech's website. The cost of the service is $12 for both of the games this weekend.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gopher Hockey Recruiting Update: 2012 Class gets Boost from A.J. Michaelson Commitment

I have just learned that Apple Valley's A.J. Michaelson has verbally committed to the University of Minnesota.

This is a huge pickup for the Gophers. Michaelson is the most sought after 1994 DOB in the state, notching 19 goals and 16 assists in 24 games as a high school freshman last season for Apple Valley. He joins highly touted defenseman Brady Skjei in the incoming class of 2012, along with Travis Boyd of the US National Development Program out in Ann Arbor (formerly of Hopkins High School), Mike Reilly of Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep, and Adam Wilcox, who is the cousin of former UMD goalie Alex Stalock.

The 2012 class looks to be shaping up as a great one, with Michaelson and Boyd providing the scoring punch, Skjei as the big defensive defenseman and Reilly as the small Crowley-type guy, and Wilcox as a very well regarded goalkeeping prospect.

Up next is a look at the Gophers 2011 Class.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Border Battle: Minnesota's Three Stars of the Weekend

Here are the three Gopher Stars of the Weekend, as selected by yours truly:

Third Star: Taylor Matson

Matson's consistent effort has resulted in a move up the depth chart and an increased responsibility to score. Unlike many players over the past several years, Matson has accepted bearing more of the scoring load, and the early returns are good. Matson has been moved up to the third line center with the absence of Nick Bjugstad due to mono, and has responded with four goals in the past four games, including the all-important first goal of the game Saturday against the Badgers. Matson is an important player to this team because he provides both effort on the penalty kill and some scoring touch to the bottom-six forwards. Matson's all-around effort earns him the number three star of the weekend.

Second Star: Jay Barriball

I don't know how it happens, but Jay Barriball always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Barriball has keen hockey sense, and his awareness allows him to be in position to score whenever the puck squirts to him. Never was that more evident than in Saturday's overtime period, when he somehow found himself with the puck right in the slot. Of course, the Gopher captain did not bury the puck in the back of the net, but he does it pretty frequently. Barriball leads the country in goal scoring, and his high-octane offense is what the Gophers will need to compete this season. He scored a huge go-ahead goal in the second period on Saturday, and for that Jay Barriball earns the number two star.

First Star: Kent Patterson

Patterson is now 4-0-1 on the season as a starting goaltender. He boasts a .917 save percentage and a 2.36 goals against average. Patterson keeps the Gophers in games and rarely gives up a big lead which the team cannot come back from. Patterson kept the Gophers in the game Saturday, making big saves in the overtime period to preserve the tie and the single point. For that, Patterson gets the number one star on the weekend.

Wisconsin Ekes Out Tie on Late Goal, Departs Minnesota with Three Point Weekend

After their 6-0 drubbing at the hands of the rival Wisconsin Badgers on Friday night, the Minnesota Gophers were looking to get off to a quick start and avoid digging themselves another big hole to start the game. Would the Maroon and Gold be able to get themselves off the mat and play a good game against a good team?

Saturday: 3-3 Tie

Saturday's game saw another lineup change in goal, as junior Kent Patterson spelled alternate captain Alex Kangas after an abysmal performance by the senior the night before that saw the Gophers give up six goals and score zero. While the sting of a 6-0 defeat should have been enough to get the team motivated, it was Wisconsin that came out with energy and carried the play throughout the first few minutes of the game. Wisconsin controlled the puck for the first four minutes of the game and generated several quality scoring chances. However, the momentum swung in the Gophers' direction as Taylor Matson deked Badger goalie Brett Bennett on a Gopher odd-man rush and deposited the puck in the back of the net, giving the Gophers a 1-0 lead just 4:18 into the game. A Jacob Cepis powerplay tally at 11:41 of the period gave the Gophers a big separation goal and a 2-0 lead just half a period into the game. Wisconsin came roaring back with a powerplay goal of their own with just over two minutes remaining in the first, and the Badgers headed into intermission down 2-1 but very much in the game.

The second period opened with a quick strike from Wisconsin's Jordy Murray. The man-advantage goal evened the score at two goals apiece just 3:39 into the period. The next fifteen minutes of the second period were evenly matched, as both teams attempted to re-establish their game plans in what became essentially a 30 minute game. There would not be another goal until 18:47 of the period, when Jay Barriball took a Cade Fairchild pass from the high slot and fired a slapshot that beat goalie Brett Bennett to give the Gophers a 3-2 lead, which they held onto until the period expired.

The Gophers came out firing in the third period, generating several two-on-one chances and creating sustained pressure for the first five minutes of the period. However, Bennett stood tall and kept his team in the game, refusing to allow any goals to the Gopher attack. After the Gopher attack settled down, the game once again reverted to more of a "wait and see" mode. Wisconsin was content with playing solid defense and waiting to take their chances when they occurred. Finally, at 17:06 of the period, Jordy Murray scrummed the puck behind the Gopher net and it somehow squirted out and past Kent Patterson for a Wisconsin game-tying goal. Patterson was visibly upset with the ruling, believing that he had covered the puck long enough to merit a whistle. After review, though, the goal stood and the game was tied at three. Both teams battled hard but the game headed into overtime.

Wisconsin was the better team in the extra period, finding themselves on the receiving end of numerous grade-A chances. Gopher goalie Patterson made the key stops, though, and Brett Bennett made saves on the two Gopher scoring chances to preserve the tie.

Gopher Player of the Game

I liked the effort I saw out of Kent Patterson in this game. The Gopher netminder was rock solid between the pipes in the first several minutes of the game when Wisconsin came out hot. After that, Patterson didn't have to make all that many big saves in regulation, but Wisconsin was out for blood in overtime and Patterson kept the puck out of the net when he absolutely needed to. Good performance from the goalkeeper, who is now 4-0-1 in his five starts at goalie. This team will only go so far as defense can take them, and they need a goaltender who can keep them in the game. Over the first bit of the season, Patterson has been that guy.


I see this as a setback for the Gophers. Coming off of a big weekend in Colorado Springs that could have been a turning point, the team lost and tied at home to a Wisconsin team that has just as many question-marks as Minnesota. One thing I noticed, though, is that nearly all of Wisconsin's goals were created by the Badger players driving to the net. The Gophers have very few players capable and willing to do that, and one of them (Zach Budish) is now out for the season. The Gophers need to get grittier and need to be okay with getting their noses dirty if they want to score goals in the WCHA. They need to find a couple more guys that are willing to do the dirty work if they want to count themselves as one of the upper-echelon programs in the country again.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A New Low: Gophers Trounced 6-0 by Visiting Badgers

All the talk about the Minnesota Gophers coming into this series with momentum and having turned a corner sure took a hit on Friday night, when the arch-rival Wisconsin Badgers manhandled the Maroon and Gold to the tune of a 6-0 score Friday night at Mariucci Arena.

There was lots of drama leading up to the game. Along with deciding on new line combinations following the Zach Budish season-ending moped accident, Gopher head coach Don Lucia had a goaltender situation on his hands. The team had won three straight ahead of erstwhile backup Kent Patterson, but the Gophers's supposed number one goalie Alex Kangas has languished on the bench during that time. In his previous three games, Kangas had allowed the opposing teams to get off to early leads, surrendering 3-0, 4-0 and 5-0 starts before the Gophers could rally for a goal.

Friday: 6-0 Gopher Loss

Lucia went with Kangas on Friday night, hoping to let him shake off the rust and get back to form. Early on in the game, Kangas looked solid, stopping quality shots and keeping the team in it. Solid offensive zone play by Gopher forward Mike Hoeffel led to several chances, but goaltender Scott Gudmandson stopped all nine first period shots the Gophers launched. The visitors got on the board with a late first period tally by Wisconsin's Michael Mersch. That goal would turn out to be all the offense that the Badgers needed.

Wisconsin scored early and often in the second period, with a 1:50 tally by Derek Lee giving the Badgers a two goal lead, followed by goals from Jordy Murray, Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle to give the Badgers a commanding 5-0 lead. Coach Lucia stuck with Alex Kangas throughout the night, but when it was all said and done a mid-third period goal by Wisconsin's Tyler Barnes gave the Badgers a 6-0 lead, which would be their final margin of victory. Badger goalie Gudmandson recorded the shutout, his first of the season.

Gopher Player of the Game

Tough to pick a player of the game in a 6-0 defeat, but I'm going to give it to Mike Hoeffel. Hoeffel looked good in the game, controlling the puck when he was on the ice and creating offensive chances. The Gophers will certainly need to capitalize on a few more of those chances tonight if they wish to compete with the Badgers.


In the weekend preview, I billed this matchup as a clash of systems. Could Wisconsin's defense-first style stop the Gophers' run-and-gun method of play? Last night's answer was a resounding "YES" Wisconsin was better than Minnesota for nearly the entirety of the game. The Gophers will need to tighten up defensively, something they did such a good job of in the second game of the St. Cloud State series and in the first game of the Colorado College series. The Gophers gave up 38 shots on goal to the Badgers Friday night. That has got to improve tremendously. The Gophers need to take a page from Wisconsin's book and start playing some good defense in front of their goaltender. Hopefully they can do that tonight as Kent Patterson will undoubtedly get the start. Two points and a split is all that the Gophers can hope for at this point. After such a drubbing, I'm guessing Minnesota comes out fired up and seeking a little revenge. Look for a more physical contest, as it seems like these two teams never play each other without a few little scuffles on the ice.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Gopher Hockey Injury Update: Budish, Nick Larson Hurt; Bjugstad and Parenteau Out with Mono

The Gophers cannot avoid the big injury over the last several years. Over the last three seasons, the Gophers have sustained season-ending injuries to key players on their rosters. In 2007-2008, Ryan Stoa went down with a knee injury after just two games. Taylor Matson tore up his knee in 2008-2009, and Matson went down again along with Jay Barriball in 2009-2010. In 2010-2011, Zach Budish has gone down for the season.

Budish was involved in a moped accident on campus this week. Preliminary reports indicate that Budish has torn his ACL and will be out for the remainder of the season.

This is a gigantic blow to the Gophers' chances this season. Budish was a player that was coming into his own. He was just learning to use his talent and his body to become a force out on the ice. The Gophers will likely replace Budish in the lineup with some combination of Patrick White, Tom Serratore, Jared Larson and Max Gardiner, but Budish's presence will be missed in the Gopher lineup.

Also on the Gopher injury report is forward Nick Larson. Larson took a puck to the ankle in practice several weeks ago and has been out of the lineup since. Larson is a solid third/fourth line forward who logs a lot of ice time on the penalty kill. Larson may be back for the Wisconsin series, but if not he'll definitely be back after the bye week the team as following their weekend set against the Badgers.

The Gophers have two other players out due to mono. Nick Bjugstad and Jake Parenteau both came down with the debilitating sickness and are likely to miss another 3-6 weeks. Bjugstad could be back as early as 3 weekends from now, but mono is an illness that takes its toll differently with different people. In any case, look to see both of these players out of the lineup for a substantial period of time.

The Gophers' supposed depth is going to be tested with three regulars and one important backup out of the lineup. The freshmen and the role players need to step it up if the Gophers can continue their winning streak.

Border Battle Preview: Gophers vs. Badgers

This weekend's series pits the Minnesota Gophers (5-3-0 Overall, 3-3-0 WCHA) against the Wisconsin Badgers (5-2-1 Overall, 2-1-1 WCHA) in a classic matchup of powerhouse teams. The two teams have 11 national championships between them, and both have a history of playing great hockey. The Gophers lead the all-time series 153-84-18, and Minnesota also leads the series 15-11-4 since the beginning of the 2003-2004.

Under head coach Mike Eaves, the Badgers always play good defense. This year is no exception. Despite losing three key defensemen in Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and Cody Goloubef from last year's squad, the Badgers are still playing solid team defense. Wisconsin is giving up only 1.9 goals per game, and is scoring just under 4.3 per game. Their two losses on the year were in the first game of the year against a good Boston University team and at Denver. Wisconsin is coming off a home sweep of Michigan Tech. Prior to that series, the team lost and tied at Denver.

As we well know, the Gophers are a team with a high-octane offense thus far. They seem to be adept at scoring goals and not so good at preventing opposing teams from scoring. The Gophers score 4.1 goals per game and give up 3.4. Minnesota is on a three-game winning streak, with a good win over St. Cloud State prior to a dismantling sweep of Colorado College. The Gophers should have tons of momentum heading into this series.

This game should be a clash of coaching schemes. Can the run-and-gun offense of Minnesota break through the defensive wall of the Wisconsin defense, or does Wisconsin's stifling neutral-zone trap keep the Gophers off the board?

As always, the Minnesota-Wisconsin series should be a good one. It will be played with high energy and high emotion, and if either team comes out of this series with more than two points it could be a launching point into the rest of the season.

See you at the rink!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gophers Erupt for 13 Goals, Rip Colorado College for Rare Away Sweep

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 :)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gophers Continue Roller-Coaster Start to Season, Split Weekend Series with St. Cloud State

This year's Gopher Hockey team has made a living of playing about 30 good minutes of hockey per game. Last weekend against St. Cloud State (1-2-1 coming into the weekend), the Gophers played up to their average at about 60 good minutes of hockey on the weekend. Strangely enough, though, the 60 good minutes all took place during Saturday night's tilt. The Gophers escaped the series with their first two league points and first WCHA win of the season, but it didn't come easy.

Friday: 5-2 Gopher Loss

Not really much to say about this game. Alex Kangas started in net and gave up the first five goals of the game on 16 shots in the first and second periods before being pulled for backup Kent Patterson midway through the middle frame. St. Cloud did capitalize on several powerplays during that span, but Kangas was not the rock in net that we have come to expect from him. Patterson did a nice job in relief of Kangas, giving up no goals the rest of the way, but the damage inflicted by SCSU the first half of the game was just too much for the Gophers to overcome. Late goals by Mike Hoeffel and Taylor Matson cut the deficit to three, but the game finished as a 5-2 St. Cloud victory. The Gophers did have plenty of offensive chances, but St. Cloud goaltender Mike Lee made the big stops when it counted and his team held on to the victory.

This would mark the third game in a row where the Gophers gave up at least the first three goals in a game (down 4-0 and 3-0 against UNO a week earlier, and down 5-0 in the Friday contest against St. Cloud). Spotting your opponent a three-plus goal lead is not the way to win many hockey games. Would the Maroon and Gold be able to right the ship on Sunday afternoon and salvage a split?

Sunday: 2-1 Gopher Win

In short, yes.

Already down to 0-3 in WCHA play, the Gophers needed to play with some desperation and grit in order to avoid being swept at home two weekends in a row to start the conference season. Coach Don Lucia decided to give the Sunday afternoon start in goal to Junior Kent Patterson, who played well in relief of Kangas on Friday, stopping all 12 shots he faced after Kangas and the Gophers had handed St. Cloud a 5-0 lead midway through the second period.

Although the Gophers gave up the game's opening goal once again (a slapshot from the point by SCSU's Brett Barta at 6:12 of the first), they responded the very next shift, with Jacob Cepis walking out from beside the net and stuffing the puck past goalie Dan Dunn to even the score. The quick response seemed to give the Gophers a big confidence boost, or at least it staved off the deflation that the team must have felt from giving up three consecutive big leads before Sunday's game. The Gophers played the rest of the period strong, and capitalized on a late power play when senior captain Jay Barriball took a Cepis feed across the net-mouth and lit the lamp, to give the team a 2-1 lead heading into the locker room.

The three first period goals were all the scoring in the entire game. Amazingly for a team like the Gophers that gives up about 5 goals a game and scores about 5 goals a game, they played stout team defense and goalie Kent Patterson made numerous stops on good St. Cloud chances to seal the victory.

If Friday's game was one of the worst played full games the Gophers have had this year, then Saturday's game was one of the best. Forwards were backchecking and playing defense in their own zone, defensemen were solid and not caught behind the play, and the goaltender made key stop after key stop when his team needed him, and got help from all the players on his team playing in front of him. 60 minutes of good hockey is what it takes to beat a good team, and the Gophers put in an solid effort throughout the entire game to secure victory and the weekend split.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend

This section is (this week) also known as "Three Gopher Stars of Sunday's game" since there really wasn't much to shout about on Friday night. However, here are the Golden Gopher stars of the weekend:

Third Star: Jay Barriball

Barriball always seems to have a hand in the action. He scored the go-ahead goal in the Sunday game that would stand as the game-winner. Barriball is first in the WCHA in goals and second nationally, and his scoring has definitely given this year's Gophers a little firepower that it has sorely lacked the past several seasons. Game in and game out, Barriball makes good plays and finds himself in good position to bury the puck, which he does pretty frequently. The game winner gives him the #3 star on the weekend.

Second Star: Jacob Cepis

Cepis set up Barriball's game winner with a nifty goal-mouth pass, but it was his own goal, the Gophers' first of the game on Sunday and the game-tying goal, that nets Cepis the #2 star this weekend. Coming off a demoralizing 5-2 loss on Friday night, the Gophers could not afford to get down big yet again on Sunday. When St. Cloud scored the first goal just six minutes into Sunday's game, the odds were not in the Gophers' favor. However, instead of packing it in and getting discouraged, Jacob Cepis did what he has done his whole career in the Maroon and Gold: play hard, go to the net and create scoring chances. Cepis created his own chance when he took a nice feed from sophomore forward Zach Budish near the corner and went right to the net with the puck, slithering the biscuit through the legs of SCSU goalie Dan Dunn and into the back of the net. The Cepis goal came on the very shift after St. Cloud had taken the lead, and I think if Cepis doesn't score there the team has a good chance of getting discouraged and quitting on the game.

First Star: Kent Patterson

Patterson this weekend was the backstop that the Gophers have been hoping Alex Kangas would be: solid positionally, sound mentally and able to come up big when called upon. All told, Patterson stopped 37 shots on the weekend while only allowing one goal over four and a half periods of stellar hockey. Hopefully this type of performance can inspire Coach Lucia to play Patterson more often - having two solid goalkeepers is never a bad thing, and the more they can spell each other so that both are physically and mentally fresh when called upon, the better. Patterson gave his team a chance to win both nights this weekend, and for that he earns the well deserved #1 star.


This Gopher team is young. It's inexperienced, it's talented, but most importantly, it's learning. There is no other explanation how the team can play an absolutely horrible game on Friday night followed by their best game of the young season so far on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps the system is starting to click to the younger players. Maybe the freshmen are realizing that they belong in a league as rough-and-tumble as the WCHA. Whatever the reason, Sunday afternoon's game saw Gopher players playing team defense, completing tape-to-tape passes and not giving up on itself.

I think I fall victim to seeing turning points as much as anyone else, but Sunday's game was the first in a long time that a Gopher hockey team put together a complete 60 minute effort, and honestly I like what I see when it does. This team can score at will when it clicks, and we know the goaltenders are as solid as they come.

The question now as it was before the season started is this: can the small, young defensive corps keep the opposing team out of the high-percentage areas? The first five games of the year, the answer was a resounding NO. However, last night's game answered the question differently. Sure, the defensemen are still going to be prone to lapses, they're not perfect and they're not NHLers. But when the forwards can backcheck and clear the rebounds from in front of the goal, this team can give up one goal in 60 minutes when the night before it gave up five goals in 30. Let's see if the team can put together a couple more 60 minute efforts in Colorado Springs against Colorado College next weekend. If so, look out, because the Gophers might just be the Gophers again!