Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend: Minnesota vs. Michigan Tech

Minnesota split last weekend against Michigan Tech in their last series before the holiday break. Who were the Gopher standouts of the weekend? Read on to find out:

Third Star: Kyle Rau - 1G-2A-3P

Rau had a great game Saturday, scoring all his points and generating nearly all of his chances on the weekend in the second game of the series. At his best, Rau is a vital cog on this Gopher team: he can distribute the puck, has a knack for knowing where to be around the goal, and consistently draws penalties with his aggressive style of play. He isn't afraid of contact and generally plays much bigger than his diminutive frame. With the other scoring lines sputtering, Rau needs to be one of the best players on the ice for Minnesota - a tall feat for a freshman. However, I liked Rau's play this weekend and his great game on Saturday especially earned him the number three star.

Second Star: Jake Hansen - 2G-1A-3P

Gopher senior forward Jake Hansen also had a three point weekend, registering one assist Friday before erupting for two goals on Saturday. Hansen is a player who hasn't gotten a whole lot of love in the three stars thus far this season, but his contributions to the Gopher squad should not go overlooked - Hansen is the team's fourth leading goal scorer (eight) and fifth leading point getter (19) for the first half of the season. There are a lot of things that Hansen could improve upon (I've been unimpressed with his passing), the fact remains that he's one of those few guys that can put the puck in the net for this Gopher squad. Minnesota needs him to keep scoring and to bolster the team's secondary goal-scoring capabilities. He did so this weekend, and for that he earns the number two star.

First Star: Mark Alt - 2G-3A-5P

Sophomore defenseman Mark Alt had an incredible weekend, registering five points and two big goals over the course of the two games. Alt has been playing the stay-at-home defenseman of his pairing while Ben Marshall has been allowed to roam. But it was Alt this weekend that jumped into the play and recorded five total points. His goal on Saturday proved to be the game-winner. Alt has been one of the better defensive-defensemen on the team this season, and if he can sprinkle in a few points here and there it will be a boon to this Gopher squad in search of any scoring at all to compliment Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. Alt is often an unsung hero of this squad, but his breakout performance last weekend earns him the number one star.

Gopher Helmet Stickers

This is a new section I've started doing alongside the Three Stars of the Weekend post - each player gets a certain number of "points" based on where they're ranked in the star rankings each weekend, and the below list is the result of all the points accumulated by player throughout the year.

1. Patterson - 29
2. Rau - 16
3. Matson - 15
4. Serratore - 10
5. Bjugstad - 9
6. Schmidt - 7
7. Condon - 6
7. Alt - 6
9. Warning - 4
9. Budish - 4
9. Holl - 4
9. Hansen - 4
13. Haula - 3
14. Marshall - 2
15. Boyd - 1

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gophers Close Out Solid First Half With Home Split Against Feisty Michigan Tech Huskies

Going into last weekend's home series against the Michigan Tech Huskies, many Minnesota fans were counting on an easy four points heading into the team's annual holiday break.

How does that saying about best laid plans go, again?

Coming off a surprisingly difficult home sweep of the Minnesota State Mavericks, the Minnesota Gophers again stumbled on a Friday night, falling in the opening game of the series before pulling away at the end of a chippy Saturday game to earn a split on the weekend.

Friday 12/9/11: 3-2 Gopher Loss

Minnesota has not had a weekend off yet this season, and the effort the Gophers showed in Friday night's game showcased it. The Maroon and Gold came out of the gates looking tired, and thankfully Michigan Tech did not do much to capitalize on the Gophers' general lethargy. In fact, Minnesota got off to a 1-0 lead in the first period, on a Mark Alt shot that deflected into the Michigan Tech net off of a Tech defender's skate. The even-strength goal came at 10:22 of the period, but Michigan Tech got a flukey goal of their own when Blake Pietila scored off of a deflection in front of the Gopher net by Travis Boyd. Pietila was actually behind the Minnesota net and centered the puck into the slot, where it hit Boyd's stick and caromed into the Gopher cage. No more scoring was to be had in the first period.

The second period was a better one for Minnesota, who outshot the Huskies 14-5 in the middle frame. However, Michigan Tech goalkeeper Josh Robinson, who was brilliant all weekend long, kept the Gophers off the board for the period. Robinson's counterpart Kent Patterson did his part as well for Minnesota, so the teams entered the third period tied at one goal each.

The tie lasted for 1:07 into the third period, when Daniel Sova scored yet another goal off of a deflection to give Michigan Tech its first lead of the game at 2-1. Minnesota crawled its way back into the contest with a Seth Helgeson one-time slapshot goal (assisted by Mark Alt) at 6:57 of the period. Although the Gophers had a power play opportunity in the middle of the third period that generated tons of quality scoring chances as well as a Nate Condon breakaway with about five minutes remaining in regulation, the teams remained tied at two going into overtime.

The extra period was over quickly. Just 0:33 into the frame, the Gophers turned the puck over at the offensive blue line, and Michigan Tech's Brett Olson was skating one-on-one with Gopher defenseman Seth Helgeson. Helgeson, not known for being fleet of foot, was beat around the outside and Olson fired a shot from in close that beat Kent Patterson five-hole and gave the Huskies a big 3-2 overtime victory.

Saturday: 6-2 Gopher Win

Saturday's game evolved very similarly to the Friday contest, with the Gophers getting off to one goal leads in each period before giving those leads back. Minnesota's Kyle Rau opened the Gopher scoring attack with a rebound goal from just outside the crease. Mark Alt had taken a shot from the blue line, and Rau was in front of the net to collect the puck and calmly put it past Michigan Tech keeper Josh Robinson. The Rau goal came at 7:37 of the period and was also assisted by Taylor Matson. The Huskies came back late in the first and tied the game on a Jordan Baker power play goal at 16:35, and the period ended in a one-all tie.

The second period saw the Gophers take another one goal lead, this time on a Jake Hansen power play tally. Hansen tipped an Erik Haula blast from the point through Robinson's five hole at 12:50 of the period. Although Minnesota did not allow a goal in the second, they set themselves up for failure early in the third when Blake Thompson blasted a Michigan Tech forward and received a five-minute Contact to the Head penalty and a game misconduct.

Minnesota killed off the first two-plus minutes of the major to end the second period ahead by a goal, but the pesky Huskies clawed their way back into the game with an early power play goal by Daniel Sova. His goal at 1:26 tied the game at two goals each, and just like Friday the game was tied at two in the third period. However, unlike Friday, Minnesota took advantage of their scoring chances and pulled away to win the game easily.

Just two minutes, twenty four seconds after the Sova game-tying goal, Mark Alt blasted a one-timer past Josh Robinson to give the Gophers a 3-2 lead. The Alt goal was set up by a perfect Nate Schmidt pass. Schmidt also assisted on the Gophers' next goal, a Nick Bjugstad tally at 9:59 of the period. Joey Miller, playing in his first game of the season on an all-new fourth line that also included Christian Isackson and Nico Sacchetti (a line which played quite well all night), scored his first goal of the year off a Mark Alt rebound shot at 12:03.

At this point, the game started to get chippy. Blake Pietila took a boarding penalty with just over three minutes left in the game. Dennis Rix took a five-minute major for high sticking when he intentionally whacked Kyle Rau in the head with the blade of his stick, and at the same time Jordan Baker took a 10 minute misconduct. When Jake Hansen scored on the ensuing Gopher 5-on-3 at 18:14, things got ugly. Immediately after the Hansen goal, a big fight broke out in front of the Michigan Tech net, as every Husky on the ice was roughing it up with any Gopher they could find. Once the referees got the players back to the faceoff dot with the Gophers up 6-2, another fight broke out as Seth Helgeson and Carl Nielsen roughed it up near the benches. At this point, Michigan Tech assistant coach Bill Muckalt got up on the bench and yelled across the plexiglass at the Gopher coaches. FSN cameras caught Muckalt challenging the Gopher coaches to fight, mouthing "come on over here" to Gopher assistant Grant Potulny. Potulny reportedly told Muckalt to "sit the **** down".

The game ended with little fanfare after the ruckus and after a brief pause both teams and sets of coaches shook hands with one another after a hard-fought weekend.

Coming up, I'll take a look at the three Gopher stars of the weekend as well as the stars of the first half of the season, then we'll update the WCHA power rankings, and finally we'll analyze what can only be described as a great first half of hockey from the Gophers and preview what should be an exciting second half.

Go Gophers!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Week 9

Here's another edition of the WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers.

WCHA Results, Week 9:

Alaska-Anchorage - Loss, Loss vs. North Dakota
Bemidji State - Tie, Win @ St. Cloud State
Colorado College - Win (Fri), Idle (Sat) vs. Denver
Denver - Loss (Fri), Idle (Sat) @ Colorado College
Michigan Tech - Loss, Loss vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Minnesota - Win, Win vs Minnesota State
Minnesota-Duluth - Win, Win @ Michigan Tech
Minnesota State - Loss, Loss @ Minnesota
Nebraska Omaha - Loss, Win @ Alabama-Huntsville
North Dakota - Win, Win @ Alaska-Anchorage
St. Cloud State - Tie, Loss @ Colorado College
Wisconsin - Idle

WCHA Standings:

1. Minnesota - 10-2-0 (13-4-1 Overall), 20 Points
2. Minnesota-Duluth - 9-2-1 (11-3-2 Overall), 19 Points
3. Nebraska-Omaha - 6-3-3 (8-7-3 Overall), 15 Points
4. Colorado College - 6-4-0 (8-4-0 Overall), 12 Points
4. North Dakota - 6-6-0 (8-7-1 Overall), 12 Points
6. Denver - 4-3-3 (6-5-3 Overall), 11 Points
6. Michigan Tech - 5-6-1 (8-7-1 Overall), 11 Points
6. St. Cloud State - 4-5-3 (6-8-4 Overall), 11 Points
9. Bemidji State - 4-6-2 (6-8-2 Overall), 10 Points
10. Wisconsin - 4-7-1 (7-8-1 Overall), 9 Points
11. Alaska-Anchorage - 2-9-1 (5-9-2 Overall), 5 Points
11. Minnesota State - 2-9-1 (3-12-1 Overall), 5 Points

Power Rankings:

1. Minnesota-Duluth (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #3
Last Week: Road Sweep @ (7) Michigan Tech
11-3-2 Overall, 9-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (8) Wisconsin

The newly-minted number one team in the nation rises to the number one power ranking this week with a road sweep of Michigan Tech. The Bulldogs haven't lost a game since being swept at home by Minnesota in the middle of October. They continue their road trip with a two-game set at Wisconsin this weekend. Minnesota-Duluth does not play another home game until January 20th and 21st, when they host Alabama-Huntsville

2. Minnesota (No Change)
Last Ranking: #2
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. (12) Minnesota State
13-4-1 Overall, 10-2-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (7) Michigan Tech

The Gophers won two games last weekend, but it wasn't pretty. Minnesota faced a charged up and finally (almost) healthy Minnesota State squad and narrowly swept. This Gopher team seems tired and ready for a break - they've played every weekend since the start of the season, whereas nearly every other team has had at least one week off. The Gophers host Michigan Tech this weekend, a series that could well result in another four points for the Maroon and Gold. Michigan Tech has been surprisingly good, though, so don't be surprised if they steal a point or two.

3. Colorado College (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #1
Last Week: Home Win (Fri), Idle (Sat) vs. (4) Denver
8-4-0 Overall, 6-4-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (11) Alaska-Anchorage

Colorado College won an overtime thriller at home against Denver Friday night, scoring on a penalty shot in the extra frame to down the Pioneers. CC enters a soft spot in their schedule, facing Anchorage at home this weekend before traveling to Mankato to take on the Mavericks. Another four wins in the next two weeks would help steady the Tigers and get them back on track in the league. Anything less, though, and the doubts will continue to linger.

4. Denver University (No Change)
Last Ranking: #4
Last Week: Road Loss (Fri), Idle (Sat) @ (3) Colorado College
6-5-3 Overall, 4-3-3 WCHA
Next Week: @ (10) Bemidji State

Denver hung tight with Colorado College on Friday night, losing in overtime. The Pioneers have had an enigmatic season so far, and they are still waiting on their #1 goalie Sam Brittain to return from injury. Their #2, Adam Murray, was injured last weekend, so Denver is down to their third string goalie for a little while anyways.

5. North Dakota (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #7
Last Week: Road Sweep @ (11) Alaska-Anchoarge
8-7-1 Overall, 6-6-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (6) Nebraska-Omaha

The Sioux took another two victories from their opponents last weekend, winning convincingly both nights against a struggling Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves team. The most pertinent news surrounding the Sioux this week, though, is that the school is giving up their nickname as of January 1st, 2012. North Dakota is 5-1 since being swept at Minnesota at the beginning of November.

6. Nebraska-Omaha (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #5
Last Week: Road Split @ Alabama-Huntsville
8-7-3 Overall, 6-3-3 WCHA
Next Week: @ North Dakota

Nebraska-Omaha lost a head-scratcher last weekend, as the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers beat them for their first win of the season. The Mavericks should be fired up for their series this weekend, as head coach Dean Blais returns Grand Forks, but not as the coach of the Sioux.

7. Michigan Tech (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #6
Last Week: Swept at Home vs. (1) Minnesota-Duluth
8-7-1 Overall, 5-6-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (2) Minnesota

The Huskies fell twice to the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs last weekend at home, and travel to Minnesota this weekend. Michigan Tech is in a tough portion of their schedule - it would be good for them to get a point or two on the road against the Gophers this weekend.

8. Wisconsin (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #9
Last Week: Idle
7-8-1 Overall, 4-7-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (1) Minnesota-Duluth

Wisconsin is a different team depending on where they play. At home in Madison, the Badgers sport a nifty 7-3-0 record, but on the road the team is winless at 0-5-1. The Badgers get the red hot Bulldogs at home this weekend, and although Duluth is a better team I wouldn't be surprised to see a split in this series.

9. St. Cloud State (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #8
Last Week: Home Tie & Loss vs. (10) Bemidji State
6-8-4 Overall, 4-5-3 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

The Huskies took only one point for the second straight weekend, this time losing and tying at home against the Bemidji State Beavers. St. Cloud may finally be feeling the effects of the injuries they've sustained, losing both forward Drew LeBlanc and goaltender Mike Lee for the season.

10. Bemidji State (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #11
Last Week: Road Tie & Win @ (9) St. Cloud State
5-8-1 Overall, 3-6-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (4) Denver

Bemidji took three points on the road against St. Cloud, and quietly the Beavers have moved up to just one point behind a tie for sixth in the league. This Beaver team could beat a few good teams down the stretch.

11. Alaska-Anchorage (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #10
Last Week: Swept at Home vs. (5) North Dakota
5-9-2 Overall, 2-9-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (3) Colorado College

The Seawolves continued their downward spiral last weekend, being swept at home by the Sioux. They face another tough test on the roat at Colorado College this weekend.

12. Minnesota State - Mankato (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Last Week: Swept on the Road @ (2) Minnesota
3-12-1 Overall, 2-9-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. Alabama-Huntsville

Minnesota State played the Gophers tough last weekend, but again came away with two losses. They host Alabama-Huntsville in non-conference action this weekend, but I think this Mankato team is better than their record, especially if they continue to get healthier.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 2 - Denver, Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 3 - No Teams
Tier 4 - Michigan Tech, North Dakota
Tier 5 - St. Cloud State, Wisconsin
Tier 6 - No Teams
Tier 7 - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

This Week

Tier 1 - Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota
Tier 2 - Colorado College, Denver
Tier 3 - North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 4 - No Teams
Tier 5 - Michigan Tech, Wisconsin
Tier 6 - St. Cloud State
Tier 7 - Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend: Minnesota vs. Minnesota State

In a weekend where the Gophers struggled to pick up two wins against Minnesota State, which Minnesota players shined the brightest? Find out below in my Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend:

3. Kent Patterson: 52 saves on 56 shots, 0.929 Sv. %

Kent Patterson usually shows up in this segment for doing the things he does best: making the saves he's supposed to due to his rock-solid positioning. He usually doesn't give up soft goals and the Gophers have done a pretty good job of limiting the grade-A chances in front of him. This weekend was a different story for the Minnesota netminder. Patterson gave up a "soft" goal on Friday night, but the reason he earned the third star of the weekend was his ability to stop the breakaway. Minnesota State had a combined five breakaways in the weekend series, and Patterson stopped them all. In fact, the "soft" Evan Mosey goal was the only five-on-five goal Patterson gave up all weekend. Kent Patterson continues to give the Gophers the type of goalie play necessary for them to compete on the national stage, and Patterson's prowess at stopping the breakaway this weekend earned him the number three star.

2. Justin Holl: 0G-0A-0P

As you can see above, Holl had zero points on the weekend. This star isn't awarded on points alone, however. Holl has been steadily improving his game for the past month and a half, and he's starting to learn to do the things he's best at in order to help the Gophers out. Holl excels when skating with the puck - he's the best puck-handling defenseman on Minnesota's roster besides Ben Marshall - and he's found that he can use that aspect of his game to open up windows of opportunity for himself and his team. Holl has begun skating his way around and past defenders to open up better passing lanes or to get the puck past the red line and dump it in so that the forwards can gain control of the zone. At the beginning of the season, Holl would remain sedentary while deciding what to do with the puck, and as he lost time and space he'd often make a mistake. Now, Holl is becoming more proactive with the puck, and he is never afraid to let a shot go. His emergence has been one of the more exciting things to watch as far as player development goes from this Gopher team, and his continued improvement certainly helped Minnesota win two games this weekend. For that, Holl earns the number two star.

1. Taylor Matson: 2G-1A-3P

The captain once again tops the list of Gopher stars this week with a balanced performance in both games of the series. Matson scored the first goal of the game on Friday night and scored the second goal on Saturday. He also added an assist to the first Saturday goal. Matson's scoring on the weekend was nowhere near his biggest contribution, however. The senior forward wins every single one-on-one puck battle he engages in when he's out on the ice. This lead-by-example mentality has permeated through the team - his encouragement to get in shape over the offseason is perhaps the driving force behind the Gophers' conditioning edge and third-period dominance this season. The next time you're watching the game, though, watch Matson race to a puck that has been dumped in. If it's a 50/50 shot that he'll win the battle, chances are more like 80/20 that he'll come out with the puck. He creates so many offensive chances and limits the opposing team's puck possession time simply by hustling the way he does all the time. His contributions are often found off the score sheet, but with three points on the weekend Gopher captain Taylor Matson deserves the number one star.

Total Star Count

This section is sort of like the helmet stickers given to football players when they make a big play. Here's how it works: individual game star points will be awarded to first star (x3), second star (x2) and third star (x1), while weekend star points will be given to the first (x6), second (x4) and third (x2) stars. Please see below for your top Gopher stars of the season so far:

Patterson - 29 Points
Matson - 15
Rau - 14
Serratore - 10
Bjugstad - 9
Schmidt - 7
Condon - 6
Warning - 4
Budish - 4
Holl - 4
Haula - 3
Marshall - 2
Boyd - 1

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gophers Edge Feisty Mavericks, Hang On Both Nights For Home Sweep of Minnesota State

Coming into last weekend's series, the Minnesota Gophers were on top of the WCHA standings and on top of their game, winners of 11 of their first 16 games and one point ahead of the red-hot UMD Bulldogs in the league race. Minnesota State, on the other hand, had had a rough go of it. Riddled with injuries, the Mavericks had won only three of their first fourteen games and only two wins in the WCHA conference.

It truly was the best of times and the worst of times for these two separate teams.

They play the games on the ice, not on paper, and Minnesota State gave the Gophers all that they could handle. At the end of the night, though, Minnesota pulled out two narrow victories on the weekend to hold onto their lead in the WCHA and continue on their quest for an NCAA tournament bid.

Friday 12/2/11: 4-2 Gopher Win

Friday's game may have surpassed the Friday Wisconsin game (which the Gophers lost 3-1) in terms of Minnesota's ugliest game of the season. The Maroon and Gold got off to a great start in each period, scoring goals less than five minutes into every frame. However, the Gophers seemed to coast after their goals in the first and second periods, to the point that the Mavericks were outshooting and outplaying Minnesota after forty minutes of action. Senior captain Taylor Matson got the Gophers on the board just ninety-eight seconds into the game, with a shot from the slot that beat Minnesota State goaltender Austin Lee. Nate Condon and Seth Helgeson added assists on Matson's fourth goal of the season. Mankato would tie the game at 8:04 of the period on what could be called a soft goal for Gopher goalie Kent Patterson to give up. The Mavericks' Evan Mosey put the puck into the back of the Minnesota net on a shot from just inside the blue line. Patterson may have been screened or the puck may have deflected off of the Minnesota defenseman, but either way it was a shot Patterson would have liked to have had back. The period ended at 1-1, and the teams were tied at 12 shots a piece.

The second period opened with another early Gopher goal. Nick Larson potted his second of the year on a rush down the right wing. Ben Marshall faked a shot to pull the defenseman to him and fed Larson the puck. Larson drove the net and put a shot past Lee on the near-side post. The goal at 3:38 of the period gave the Gophers another early period lead which they would later relinquish. The Mavericks tied the game on the powerplay at 9:28 of the period when Jean-Paul LaFontaine found the puck and shot it into the net past a slough of Gopher and Maverick players piled on top of Kent Patterson. The referees reviewed the play and determined that Gopher forward Nick Bjugstad had checked the Maverick player into Kent Patterson, causing him to be out of position when the puck crossed the line. The Gopher players and coaching staff were upset, and tempers flared for both sides just a couple minutes later when three players (two Mavericks and Gopher Kyle Rau) were given penalties for roughing after the whistle. The rest of the period passed uneventfully until 19:59, when Seth Ambroz took a cross-checking minor to send the Gophers down a man for nearly two full minutes heading into the third period.

Thankfully for Minnesota, the Gophers were able to kill the early-period penalty and draw a power play of their own, when Ben Marshall drove the net and was taken down by Minnesota State's Matt Leiter. The tripping minor would prove to be crucial, as Minnesota's Erik Haula would score his ninth goal of the young season on the power play at 4:51. The slapshot goal from the right point was assisted by Nate Schmidt and Nick Bjugstad.

Unlike the previous two periods, Minnesota would not give up their lead. The Gophers dominated the period, outshooting the Mavericks 13-5 in the frame. Jake Hansen sealed the game with an empty net goal (assisted by Zach Budish) with less than a minute to go in the game.

Saturday 12/3/11: 3-2 Gopher Win

Although the Gophers won by a slimmer margin on Saturday night, the team played decidedly better and had to overcome far greater adversity in their latest victory. Minnesota was shorthanded a total of nine times throughout the game (including an extended 5-on-3), and they gave up only two goals on those chances. Also, despite being down a man for a significant portion of the game, the Gophers badly outshot the Mavericks on the game, 40-28 overall. Yet another interesting marker of this weekend (and of the entire season): the Gopher dominance of the third period continued. The Gophers carried the majority of the play in the third period both nights, as evidenced by their advantage in third period shots on goal. Combined, Minnesota outshot Minnesota State 22-9 in the final periods this weekend, and the Gophers have scored 30 goals in the third period or overtime while giving up only eight goals in the final frame.

The Gophers scored early and often on Saturday night, getting first period tallies from Seth Ambroz, Taylor Matson and Kyle Rau. Assists on those goals went to Zach Budish (x2), Taylor Matson, Seth Ambroz, Nate Condon and Mark Alt.

Although Minnesota built a big lead, Minnesota State did not give up. As mentioned above, the Mavericks were on the power play nine times in the period, and Zach Lehrke took advantage, scoring 2:32 into the second period and 4:00 into the third (on a 5-on-3) to cut the Gopher lead to just one. However, the Gophers weathered the Maverick press and came out of the game with a narrow 3-2 victory.

Next Weekend: Gophers vs. Michigan Tech

The Gophers host the tied-for-sixth-place Michigan Tech Huskies next weekend. The Huskies are much improved over last year, having already racked up more victories than the team did all of last season. Much of that has to do with health and a new vision behind the bench. Last year's Tech team was decimated by injuries, and this year's team has new head coach and former Husky player Mel Pearson at the helm. Pearson has injected some life into the program, but Michigan Tech has still had a tough time on the road - the team is only 2-4 on the road this year, and at Minnesota will be the team's toughest test so far. Michigan Tech is coming off being swept at home by the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs so they could be hungry for wins. I could see the Huskies stealing a win from Minnesota, but I expect a weekend sweep for the Gophers heading into the winter break.

Look out for the Three Gopher Stars of the weekend post tomorrow! Go Gophers!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Week 8

Another interesting week in the WCHA... here are this week's WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers:

WCHA Results, Week 8:

Alaska-Anchorage - Win, Tie @ Minnesota State
Bemidji State - Idle
Colorado College - Loss, Loss @ North Dakota
Denver - Win vs. Princeton, Loss vs. Miami
Michigan Tech - Loss, Win @ St. Lawrence
Minnesota - Loss, Tie @ Michigan State
Minnesota-Duluth - Idle
Minnesota State - Loss, Tie vs. Alaska-Anchorage
Nebraska Omaha - Win, Tie vs. St. Cloud State
North Dakota - Win, Win vs. Colorado College
St. Cloud State - Loss, Tie @ Nebraska Omaha
Wisconsin - Win, Win vs. Mercyhurst

WCHA Standings:

1. Minnesota - 8-2-0 (11-4-1 Overall), 16 Points
2. Minnesota-Duluth - 7-2-1 (9-3-2 Overall), 15 Points
2. Nebraska-Omaha - 6-3-3 (7-6-3 Overall), 15 Points
4. Denver - 4-2-3 (6-4-3 Overall), 11 Points
4. Michigan Tech - 5-4-1 (8-5-1 Overall), 11 Points
6. Colorado College - 5-4-0 (7-4-0 Overall), 10 Points
6. St. Cloud State - 4-4-2 (6-7-3 Overall), 10 Points
8. Wisconsin - 4-7-1 (7-8-1 Overall), 9 Points
9. North Dakota - 4-6-0 (6-7-1 Overall), 8 Points
10. Bemidji State - 3-6-1 (5-8-1 Overall), 7 Points
11. Alaska-Anchorage - 2-7-1 (5-7-2 Overall), 5 Points
11. Minnesota State - 2-7-1 (3-10-1 Overall), 5 Points

Power Rankings:

1. Colorado College (No Change)
Last Ranking: #1
Last Week: Swept on the Road @ (7) North Dakota
7-4-0 Overall, 5-4-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (4) Denver (Friday), idle Saturday

Another chink in the armor of this CC squad, as they get swept on the road against an unimpressive (thus far) North Dakota team. Winning on the road is always tough, especially in Grand Forks, but the Tigers need to shore up their defense if they want to be in the national title discussion. CC gave up 11 goals on the weekend. Still, though, the Tigers remain atop the rankings due to nearly every other top WCHA team struggling.

2. Minnesota (No Change)
Last Ranking: #2
Last Week: Road Loss & Tie @ Michigan State
11-4-1 Overall, 8-2-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (12) Minnesota State

Minnesota has now lost three Friday road games in a row, and a tie on Saturday produced the team's first no-win weekend of the season. Gopher goalie Kent Patterson looked surprisingly mortal in the weekend series, giving up several "soft" goals - unusual for a player of his caliber. Patterson and the Gophers look to rebound this weekend against the last place team in the WCHA, the Minnesota State Mavericks.

3. Minnesota-Duluth (No Change)
Last Ranking: #3
Last Week: Idle
9-3-2 Overall, 7-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (6) Michigan Tech

Duluth begins a stretch of eight straight road games this weekend when they head to Houghton to face the Michigan Tech Huskies. UMD could solidify their spot as an elite team in the WCHA and across the country with three or four points on the road against the surprisingly tough Huskies.

4. Denver University (No Change)
Last Ranking: #4
Last Week: Home Win & Loss vs. Providence (Fri) and Miami (Sat)
6-5-3 Overall, 4-2-3 WCHA
Next Week: @ (1) Colorado College (Friday), Idle Saturday

Denver won the opening game of their tournament Friday against Providence College before falling to Miami in the championship game. The Pioneers sorely miss their starting goaltender Sam Brittain, who is out until after the Christmas break with a torn ACL.

5. Nebraska-Omaha (No Change)
Last Ranking: #5
Last Week: Home Win & Tie @ (8) St. Cloud State
7-6-3 Overall, 6-3-3 WCHA
Next Week: Non-conference @ Alabama-Huntsville

UNO took three points at home from St. Cloud State last weekend and have moved up into a tie for second place in the league. They head south to face Alabama-Huntsville in a non-conference series this weekend.

6. Michigan Tech (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #7
Last Week: Road Split @ St. Lawrence
8-5-1 Overall, 5-4-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (3) Minnesota-Duluth

Somebody has to win that last home ice spot in the league, and if I had to guess right now I'd say that it would be Michigan Tech. The Huskies face a stiff test this weekend when the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs come to town.

7. North Dakota (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #9
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. (1) Colorado College
6-7-1 Overall, 4-6-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (10) Alaska-Anchorage

Don't look now, but this could be the start of another patented North Dakota surge. The offensively-challenged Sioux erupted for 11 goals against Colorado College in a home sweep last weekend. The Sioux have to make the long, tough road trip out to Alaska-Anchorage next weekend, though. Another pair of wins and North Dakota is right back in the picture.

8. St. Cloud State (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #6
Last Week: Road Loss & Tie vs. (5) Nebraska-Omaha
6-7-3 Overall, 4-4-2 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (11) Bemidji State

Last week I mentioned that St. Cloud's series against Nebraska-Omaha could be a statement series for them. It was not. St. Cloud escaped Nebraska with just one point on the weekend, and although they still have as good a chance as any of the teams ranked 6-9 in this power ranking of jumping into the last home-ice spot in the league, they've moved all the way down to 8th in the rankings.

9. Wisconsin (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #8
Last Week: Sweep vs. Mercyhurst
7-8-1 Overall, 4-7-1 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

I don't really have much of a reason to move Wisconsin down to #9 this week, other than the fact that there are just a lot of teams that appear to be very similar in the WCHA and somebody's got to be ninth. The Badgers have this weekend off before hosting a very important series against Minnesota-Duluth.

10. Alaska-Anchorage (No Change)
Last Ranking: #10
Last Week: Road Win & Tie vs. (12) Minnesota State
5-7-2 Overall, 2-7-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (7) North Dakota

Anchorage moved up to tie Minnesota State for 11th place in the league with a three point weekend against them last weekend. They will look to continue moving up the table with a home series against the surging Sioux in this weekend's slate of games.

11. Bemidji State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #11
Last Week: Idle
5-8-1 Overall, 3-6-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. @ (8) St. Cloud State

Bemidji battles in-state rival St. Cloud this weekend after getting the previous weekend off.

12. Minnesota State - Mankato (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Last Week: Home Loss & Tie vs. (10) Alaska-Anchorage
3-10-1 Overall, 2-7-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (2) Minnesota

The Mavericks fell into a tie for last place last weekend when they only took one point from Alaska-Anchorage. Could the Mavericks steal a point or two from the slumping Gophers this weekend?

Team Tiers:

Last Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 2 - Denver
Tier 3 - Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 4 - No Teams
Tier 5 - St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech
Tier 6 - Wisconsin, North Dakota
Tier 7 - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

This Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 2 - Denver, Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 3 - No Teams
Tier 4 - Michigan Tech, North Dakota
Tier 5 - St. Cloud State, Wisconsin
Tier 6 - No Teams
Tier 7 - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend: Minnesota vs. Michigan State

In a strange confluence of events, Kent Patterson did not make the Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend for his unusually lackluster performance last weekend. Read on to find out who DID make the coveted podium!

Third Star: Nick Bjugstad - 2G-2A-4P

Another weekend at the office for the nation's top goal scorer. Bjugstad racked up two goals in Friday night's game before piling on another two assists in the Saturday contest. Bjugstad is tied with Wisconsin's Justin Schultz and Mark Zengerle for first place in total points in the country, but the sophomore's emergence as a goal scorer is the truly remarkable thing here: in his last 22 games played dating back to last season, Bjugstad has scored 20 goals.

Second Star: Zach Budish - 1G-2A-3P

The "unheralded" star on the Gopher first line, Zach Budish broke out of a slump this weekend, breaking a seven-game goal scoring drought by notching his fourth goal of the season. Although Budish plays on the first line, the Gophers count on him for "secondary scoring" - anyone not named Bjugstad, Rau or Haula should be considered secondary scoring on this team - and a good offensive weekend for the redshirt sophomore could point towards an increase in production going forward.

First Star: Tom Serratore - 0G-0A-0P

I would be hard pressed to look at anyone that played on this Minnesota roster last weekend and come up with a player that made more of an impact on his team than did Tom Serratore. He did not factor in the scoring whatsoever, but the guy is a menace when he's out on the ice. Serratore is perhaps the perfect fourth line player - he's gritty, his motor is always going, he's a sound defensive forward, and he has a little bit of pop in his offensive game, too. The man is always noticeable in a positive way on the ice, pressuring the puck with hard forechecking or simply laying a big, clean hit on an opponent to knock him off balance. In fact, I think other than the Gopher first line, the fourth line is the one that dominates the most when on the ice. Due credit must also go to Serratore's typical linemates Nick Larson and Travis Boyd. The three of them together are a hard-working and effective dynamo. Serratore, though, was the best and brightest last weekend, and he deserves the number one star because of it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Minnesota Loses and Ties in Non-Conference Series Against Michigan State

Hockey can be a funny game sometimes. It's not like basketball, in which the better team wins nearly all of the time since the teams score throughout the game. This weekend, the team that played better hockey did not win. Minnesota outshot, out-chanced and generally out-hustled a good Michigan State team, but the scoreboard told a different story as the Spartans beat the Gophers Friday night before coming back to tie the game on Saturday.

Friday 11/25/11: 4-3 Gopher Loss

Minnesota's first full series against the Michigan State Spartans in more than 10 years opened with a fast paced first period. Michigan State took advantage of early flat play from the Gophers - something that has become all too common during the past three Friday nights. The Spartans jumped ahead to an early two goal lead behind goals from Kevin Walrod at 8:12 and Brent Darnell at 12:25. It seems like Minnesota has struggled to start playing with passion recently until they've been put into an early hole, but once Michigan State scored their second goal of the period the Gophers woke up. Minnesota dominated the remainder of the period (and the remainder of the game) as Seth Helgeson scored on a hard snapshot from the point at 16:47, with the assist going to Jake Hansen. Hansen made the play, controlling the puck in the corner before firing a pass to Helgeson in the high slot for a one-time shot. Nick Bjugstad tied the game with a goal less than a minute later at 17:34 of the period. Zach Budish and Mark Alt assisted on the play.

The shots on goal in the first period were 17-12 in favor of Minnesota, and the Gophers would add to their edge in shots in the second by putting 10 on Spartan goalie Drew Palmisano. However, Palmisano did not let any shots by him, and Gopher netminder Kent Patterson did not allow any of the five Michigan State shots into the net, so the teams exited the ice after two periods of play tied at 2-2.

The third period was another in what has become a string of "too little, too late" efforts for the Gophers. Kent Patterson has been the best goalkeeper in the country throughout Minnesota's first 14 games, but even great goalies let in soft goals at times, and Patterson allowed a couple soft goals early in the period (one shorthanded to Kevin Walrod at 3:08, the second to Matt Berry at 5:02 on an innocuous shot from the wing) and needed his team to bail him out in order for the Gophers to come out on top in the game. They almost did. Nick Bjugstad scored his second goal of the night and nation-leading 15th of the season at 13:02 of the third, and the Gophers continued to pepper Palmisano with scoring chance after scoring chance. With about a minute left Minnesota pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, and in what was perhaps the best scoring chance of the game Kyle Rau found the puck on his stick with tons of net to look at and about 25 seconds left on the clock. However, Palmisano reached out in desperation with his glove hand and swiped the puck out of the air before it crossed the goal line, preserving the Spartan lead and eventually winning the game for Michigan State. Minnesota battled back and nearly tied the game, but Michigan State ended up winning a game in which they were outplayed by the visiting Gophers. The shots for the third period were 16-6, for a grand total of 43-23 for the game in favor of Minnesota.

Saturday 11/26/11: 4-4 Tie

Minnesota started the first period on Saturday with much more jump than they had in the opening ten minutes on Friday. However, it would be Michigan State that again jumped out to an early lead. Brock Shelgren scored the only goal of the first period at 11:49, with the assists going to Mike Merrifield and Greg Wolfe, who was serving a mandatory one-game suspension Friday night following a fighting major the previous Saturday. Again, although the Gophers outshot the Spartans 12-9 in the first period, Michigan State held a one goal lead after the first.

Minnesota would tie the game early in the second period as Ben Marshall scored his second goal of the season. In what very well could have been a tripping penalty on the Gophers, the puck squirted out to the point where Marshall pinched in, stickhandled into a scoring area and fired a wrist shot past Spartan goalie Drew Palmisano. The unassisted goal at 4:39 tied the game at one goal each, but Michigan State would again take advantage of some Minnesota lapses to take a lead before the period expired. First, Mike Merrifield scored at 10:39 on assists from Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer. Then, less than four minutes later at 14:27, Matt Crandell's shot from the point made its way through about five bodies before sneaking past Kent Patterson and into the Gopher net.

Minnesota would do something it did not do much of in the past several seasons though - respond and come back. The Gophers took advantage of a late power play opportunity when Erik Haula scored on a rebound from a near-impossible angle to cut the Spartan lead to 3-2. The assists on the Haula goal were from Nick Bjugstad and Nate Schmidt. The second period would end at that score, but the Gopher comeback was just getting started. The Gophers earned an early power play on a Tim Buttery tripping call at 2:26, and although the Spartans technically killed off the chance, Minnesota's Zach Budish scored just two seconds after the Gopher powerplay expired at 4:28. Budish's goal was set up by Taylor Matson and Justin Holl. Minnesota kept rolling, and Kyle Rau would put the Gophers ahead for the first time on the weekend at 7:01 of the period on a rebound chance off of a Zach Budish shot. Nick Bjugstad chipped in another assist on the goal, and with less than 13 minutes left in the game the Gophers had stormed all the way back and taken the lead.

It was short lived. Daultan Leveille scored on a partial breakaway at 8:54 of the period to tie the game at four goals each, and although Minnesota earned a late power play at 19:28 of the period they could not score in regulation play or overtime, so the game resulted in a 4-4 tie. The shots in the game ended at 39-31 in favor of the Gophers, but as mentioned on Friday the only number that matters is the one on the scoreboard, and the scoreboard was not friendly to Minnesota this weekend.

Next Weekend: Minnesota vs. Minnesota State

Next weekend, the Minnesota Gophers host the Minnesota State Mavericks in a series that pits the top team in the WCHA against the bottom team. The Mavericks are getting healthier and could get junior captain Tyler Elbrecht back this weekend. Elbrecht had broken multiple bones in his arm in the Mavericks' first game of the season, but the big defenseman could be back on the blueline for the purple cows this weekend. On the Gopher bench, coach Don Lucia mentioned that he was going to go back to the Gopher lineup from several weeks ago, sliding Travis Boyd back to the center on the fourth line and moving Seth Ambroz back to the Matson-Condon line. These combinations worked well several weeks ago and should be good again for the Maroon and Gold. Even though the Mavericks always play hard against the Gophers, on Minnesota's home ice I expect nothing less than a weekend sweep for Minnesota.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

In Honor of Gophers-Spartans This Weekend...

Check out this great old video of Gopher Hockey versus Michigan State. Enjoy!

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Week 7

Here are this week's WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers:

WCHA Results, Week 7:

Alaska-Anchorage - Win, Loss vs. Michigan Tech
Bemidji State - Loss, Win vs. North Dakota
Colorado College - Win, Win vs. Wisconsin
Denver - Win, Tie vs. Nebraska-Omaha
Michigan Tech - Loss, Win @ Alaska-Anchorage
Minnesota - Loss, Win in Home-and-Home vs. St. Cloud State
Minnesota-Duluth - Win, Win vs. Minnesota State
Minnesota State - Loss, Loss @ Minnesota-Duluth
Nebraska Omaha - Loss, Tie @ Denver
North Dakota - Win, Loss @ Bemidji State
St. Cloud State - Win, Loss in Home-and-Home vs. Minnesota
Wisconsin - Loss, Loss @ Colorado College

WCHA Standings:

1. Minnesota - 8-2-0 (11-3-0 Overall), 16 Points
2. Minnesota-Duluth - 7-2-1 (9-3-2 Overall), 15 Points
3. Nebraska-Omaha - 5-3-2 (6-6-2 Overall), 12 Points
4. Denver - 4-2-3 (5-3-3 Overall), 11 Points
4. Michigan Tech - 5-4-1 (7-4-1 Overall), 11 Points
6. Colorado College - 5-2-0 (7-2-0 Overall), 10 Points
7. St. Cloud State - 4-3-1 (6-6-2 Overall), 9 Points
7. Wisconsin - 4-7-1 (5-8-1 Overall), 9 Points
9. Bemidji State - 3-6-1 (5-8-1 Overall), 7 Points
10. Minnesota State - 2-6-0 (3-9-0 Overall), 4 Points
10. North Dakota - 2-6-0 (4-7-1 Overall), 4 Points
12. Alaska-Anchorage - 1-7-0 (4-7-1 Overall), 2 Points

Power Rankings:

1. Colorado College (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #2
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. (8) Wisconsin
7-2-0 Overall, 5-2-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (9) North Dakota

CC is back on top of the rankings after a Minnesota loss and an impressive home sweep versus Wisconsin. The Tigers limited the Badgers to just three goals in their two wins, and if they can combine staunch defending with their impressive offense they will be the team to beat in the league this season.

2. Minnesota (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #1
Last Week: Home-and-Home Split vs. (6) St. Cloud State
11-3-0 Overall, 8-2-0 WCHA
Next Week: Non-conference series @ Michigan State

The Gophers lost on the road on Friday for the second week in a row before coming home and dominating the Huskies to the tune of a 5-0 shutout. This Minnesota team has all the talent in the world, but needs to show a hunger and desire for sixty minutes of every game. Their best player, senior goaltender Kent Patterson, has already set a team record for shutouts in a single season. Minnesota travels to East Lansing to take on the 7-5-0 Michigan State Spartans over Thanksgiving weekend.

3. Minnesota-Duluth (No Change)
Last Ranking: #3
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. (12) Minnesota State
9-3-2 Overall, 7-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

The Bulldogs easily dispatched of the Mavericks at home last weekend, and now stand only a single point behind Minnesota. Minnesota-Duluth is idle next weekend, and the break will do them good - they've played 10 of their first 14 games at home, but the Bulldogs' next eight games come on the road.

4. Denver University (No Change)
Last Ranking: #4
Last Week: Home Win & Tie vs. (5) Nebraska-Omaha
5-3-3 Overall, 4-2-3 WCHA
Next Week: Non-conference vs. Providence (Fri) and Miami (Sat)

The Pioneers took three out of four points from a good Nebraska-Omaha team at home last weekend. It looks like Denver has gotten themselves back on track, now in fourth place in the league and moving up. They face Providence College from Hockey East and Miami (OH) from the CCHA in an important non-conference matchup this weekend.

5. Nebraska-Omaha (No Change)
Last Ranking: #5
Last Week: Road Loss & Tie @ (4) Denver
6-6-2 Overall, 5-3-2 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (6) St. Cloud State

UNO lost and tied at Denver last weekend, and although they only took one point they're still in third place overall in the league. Their goaltending situation is still up in the air, as last season's WCHA third team goalie John Faulkner gave up seven goals on Friday and has had a tough year thus far. If the Mavericks can find a good goalie they might be able to maintain their position in the top four of the league.

6. St. Cloud State (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #8
Last Week: Home-and-Home Split vs. (2) Minnesota
6-6-2 Overall, 4-3-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (5) Nebraska-Omaha

St. Cloud moves into the last home-ice spot in the WCHA power rankings. It's a testament to the uneasy nature of the middle of the league that there have been three teams in the last three weeks occupying the sixth spot in the raknings (North Dakota, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State). The Huskies travel to Omaha to battle the Mavericks in what could be a statement series for them - three points or more and St. Cloud is staunchly in the home-ice conversation.

7. Michigan Tech (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #9
Last Week: Road Split @ (10) Alaska-Anchorage
7-4-1 Overall, 5-4-1 WCHA
Next Week: Non-conference @ St. Lawrence

Michigan Tech split on the road with an underrated Alaska-Anchorage team last weekend, and will go on the road to St. Lawrence this weekend. The Huskies are undergoing something of a renaissance, as they've already won more games (7) and WCHA games (5) than they won all of last season (4 and 2, respectively). This late into the season Michigan Tech is still tied for fourth in the league... they've got to start getting some love from the pollsters and from me in this power ranking.

8. Wisconsin (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #6
Last Week: Swept on the Road @ (1) Colorado College
5-8-1 Overall, 4-7-1 WCHA
Next Week: Non-conference vs. Mercyhurst

Wisconsin was swept in Colorado Springs last weekend, but should look to rebound at home against Mercyhurst. The Badgers are an enigma, with their defensive style working for them at times but biting them at others. One positive sign is that they may have found a starting goaltender - Joel Rumpel played well against Minnesota and played the Friday game against the Tigers.

9. North Dakota (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #7
Last Week: Road Split @ (11) Bemidji State
4-7-1 Overall, 2-6-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (1) Colorado College

North Dakota moves down to number nine in this week's power rankings. The Sioux are reeling, and it doesn't get any easier as the number one Colorado College Tigers travel to Grand Forks next weekend. Star freshman Rocco Grimaldi is out another 6-8 weeks, and as the Sioux are thin in the scoring department anyways this could be a blow to their chances in the league.

10. Alaska-Anchorage (No Change)
Last Ranking: #10
Last Week: Home Split vs. (7) Michigan Tech
4-7-1 Overall, 1-7-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (12) Minnesota State

The Seawolves finally won their first league game last weekend, and they travel to Mankato to take on the Mavericks this weekend. This could be an opportunity for Anchorage to grab a few points on the road in the league.

11. Bemidji State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #11
Last Week: Home Split vs (9) North Dakota
5-8-1 Overall, 3-6-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. Idle

The Beavers split with the rival Sioux last weekend, and currently sit in ninth place overall in the WCHA. Bemidji gets a week off this weekend before traveling to St. Cloud to take on the Huskies next weekend.

12. Minnesota State - Mankato (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Last Week: Swept on the Road @ (3) Minnesota-Duluth
3-9-0 Overall, 2-6-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (10) Alaska-Anchorage

Mankato was swept in Duluth by the hot Bulldogs, and they could look to gain a few league points this weekend at home against Alaska-Anchorage.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

Tier 1 - Minnesota, Colorado College
Tier 2 - Minnesota-Duluth, Denver
Tier 3 - No Teams
Tier 4 - Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 5 - Wisconsin, North Dakota, St. Cloud State
Tier 6 - Michigan Tech
Tier 7 - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

This Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 2 - Denver
Tier 3 - Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 4 - No Teams
Tier 5 - St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech
Tier 6 - Wisconsin, North Dakota
Tier 7 - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

St. Cloud Bests Minnesota Friday, but Gophers Dominate Saturday to Earn Split

Although Minnesota and St. Cloud State have not been playing each other for as long as some of the Gophers' other rivals, the two teams nonetheless have one of the more interesting histories in all of college hockey. The Huskies' first coach was none other than legendary Gopher and Miracle On Ice coach Herb Brooks. Brooks was instrumental in getting the Husky program off the ground, and in the years since he's left the program St. Cloud has certainly turned into one of the better college hockey schools in the country. SCSU has produced multiple NHL players and although they haven't had much success thus far in the NCAA tournament it seems like only a matter of time before the Huskies under current head coach (and former Gopher assistant) Bob Motzko make a run in the big dance.

This weekend, though, the teams looked much more like equals and less like older and younger brother, as both the Gophers and the Huskies won in their home arenas to come away with a weekend split.

Friday 11/18/11: 4-3 Gopher Loss

Minnesota traveled up I-94 to battle the Huskies in their barn on Friday night. The nearly 6,000 fans at the National Hockey Center were rabid (as always), and wanted nothing more than to see their squad take down the number-one ranked Gophers. Minnesota, however, came out of the gates firing and quickly built a lead in the shots on goal statistic. It was St. Cloud that would get on the board first, though, as Ben Hanowski pounced on a Gopher turnover and slid a puck past Gopher goalie Kent Patterson. Later in the period, the Huskies would take two penalties 1:34 apart, giving Minnesota an abbreviated two-man advantage. Although the Gophers did not convert on the 26 seconds of 5-on-3, Minnesota's Nick Bjugstad scored on the power play at 11:13, with assists coming from Jake Hansen and Nate Schmidt. The goal tied up the game, but the Huskies would re-take the lead before the period expired as Cam Reid scored on a St. Cloud power play. Although the shots (17-7) and the play favored Minnesota in the period, St. Cloud took advantage of their scoring chances and held the lead as the teams headed into the locker room.

St. Cloud taking advantage of their scoring chances would be a theme in the second period. Although Minnesota again outshot the Huskies (11-6 in the second) it was St. Cloud that scored twice in the middle frame to increase their lead to 4-1. The goals came early, from Nic Dowd on a rebound chance at 4:35 and Jared Festler on a backdoor play on the man advantage at 7:12. The Gophers attempted to respond, but Husky goalie Ryan Faragher was outstanding, limiting rebounds and keeping the Gophers bottled up.

A frustrated Minnesota team left the ice after the second period, and a determined one took the ice to start the third. Faragher, however, was up to the task - for the first fifteen minutes of the last stanza, anyways. At 14:59, fourth-line sparkplug Tom Serratore tipped a Ben Marshall shot from the point past Faragher and gave the Gophers new life. Less than two minutes later at 16:52, Kyle Rau tapped a loose puck past Faragher to get the Gophers within one goal at 4-3. Although the team fought valiantly down to the final seconds, Minnesota could not squeak another one past Faragher. As the horn sounded the Huskies embraced their goaltender for leading the team to a 4-3 victory.

Saturday 11/19/11: 5-0 Gopher Victory

Minnesota's coaching staff must have had some good messages for the team following Friday night's game, because the Gophers looked like a team that would not lose on Saturday. The Gophers played a complete game Saturday, and although Nick Bjugstad was the offensive star of the game it was Kent Patterson that would steal the show.

The Gophers started the game playing a cagey style, not entirely sure what to expect from St. Cloud. The Huskies were awarded an early power play, but good penalty killing and a penalty of their own late into the power play got the Gophers off the hook. Sophomore Nick Bjugstad put the first goal on the board for Minnesota, as he roofed a Zach Budish pass at 8:13 of the period. Jake Hansen made it a 2-0 lead for the Gophers just 44 seconds later at 8:57, beating Faragher five-hole on an Erik Haula pass.

2-0 is how the period would finish, and Minnesota would not look back the rest of the game. Kyle Rau and Erik Haula hit the post in the second period, and early in the third the Gophers put the final nails in the Husky coffin with two nearly-identical power play goals from Nick Bjugstad sandwiching a Mark Alt goal from the point. The three goals came between 3:11 and 5:42 of the period, and from that point on it was all about Kent Patterson. The Gopher netminder has been having one of the most storied seasons in team history, and as the final horn sounded on his sixth shutout of the season players mobbed the senior and fans gave Patterson a standing ovation. Patterson's six shutouts on the year are a new Gopher record, breaking Hobey Baker winner Robb Stauber's team record of five set in the 1987-1988 season. What makes Patterson's feat all the more remarkable is that he's recorded six shutouts in just fourteen games! If he continues playing at anywhere near his current production, All-American and Hobey Baker honors are not out of the question.

Congratulations to Kent and the Gophers, who are still atop the WCHA with 16 points in just 10 WCHA games. One thing for fans to remember about this Gopher run is that seven of their first ten league games came on the road. Definitely an impressive start to the season.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend

Since I'm a little late to the party on this week's Three Gopher Stars, I'm going to keep it short and simple.

3. Nate Schmidt: 0G-3A-3P

Schmidt set up Bjugstad on nearly identical power play goals on Saturday night. The Schmidt-to-Bjugstad combination is one we might be seeing a lot on the power play in the future.

2. Tom Serratore: 1G-0A-1P

If this was just a Friday night contest, Serratore would get the number one star. In fact, even if he hadn't scored on Friday he was still the Gophers' best player that night. Serratore brings a unique blend of hard play, hard hits and a little offensive mojo to the team. It's no wonder the Gopher fourth line keeps up with the first lines of good teams.

1. Nick Bjugstad: 4G-1A-5P

Bjugstad recorded his first hat-trick on Saturday night, racking up three goals (two on one-time power play shots) to power the Gophers to a 5-0 victory. The nation's leading scorer is on an unbelievable pace, and Hobey Baker rumblings are not out of the question for this young man if he keeps it up. Expect him to be wearing a Florida Panthers uniform at this time next season - there's virtually zero chance he'll return to the Gophers next year.

Next Weekend: @ Michigan State

The Gophers travel to East Lansing to take on the 7-5-0 Michigan State Spartans. Sparty cracked the polls this week, edging to number 20. Michigan State is no pushover, holding victories over good Ohio State, Western Michigan and Northern Michigan squads. This should be another good barometer series for the Gophers - can they sustain their success on the road against a good opponent? We'll find out - the puck drops at 7:05 ET (6:05 CT) on both Friday and Saturday evening.

Until then, have a wonderful Thanksgiving! I'm thankful for this edition of the Gophers - finally something to be excited about! Go Gophers!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Week 6

Another week, another set of power rankings in the WCHA - INCLUDING a few big moves in the top six. Read more to find out:

WCHA Results, Week 6:

Alaska-Anchorage - Loss, Loss @ Minnesota-Duluth
Bemidji State - Tie, Loss vs. Nebraska-Omaha
Colorado College - Idle, Loss @ Denver
Denver - Idle, Win vs. Colorado College
Michigan Tech - Idle
Minnesota - Loss, Win @ Wisconsin
Minnesota-Duluth - Win, Win vs. Alaska-Anchorage
Minnesota State - Win, Loss vs. St. Cloud State
Nebraska Omaha - Tie, Win vs. Bemidji State
North Dakota - Idle
St. Cloud State - Loss, Win @ Minnesota State
Wisconsin - Win, Loss vs. Minnesota

WCHA Standings:

1. Minnesota - 7-1-0 (10-2-0 Overall), 14 Points
2. Minnesota-Duluth - 5-2-1 (7-3-2 Overall), 11 Points
2. Nebraska-Omaha - 5-2-1 (6-5-1 Overall), 11 Points
4. Michigan Tech - 4-3-1 (6-3-1 Overall), 9 Points
4. Wisconsin - 4-5-1 (5-6-1 Overall), 9 Points
6. Denver - 3-2-2 (4-3-2 Overall), 8 Points
7. St. Cloud State - 3-2-1 (5-5-2 Overall), 7 Points
8. Colorado College - 3-2-0 (5-2-0 Overall), 6 Points
9. Bemidji State - 2-5-1 (4-7-1 Overall), 5 Points
10. Minnesota State - 2-4-0 (3-7-0 Overall), 4 Points
11. North Dakota - 1-5-0 (3-6-1 Overall), 2 Points
12. Alaska-Anchorage - 0-6-0 (3-6-1 Overall), 0 Points

Power Rankings:

1. Minnesota (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #2
Last Week: Road Split vs. (6) Wisconsin
10-2-0 Overall, 7-1-0 WCHA
Next Week: Home-and-Home series vs. (8) St. Cloud State

Minnesota lost on Friday at Wisconsin and showed that they're a young team that can fall prey to inconsistent effort sometimes. Then Saturday they showed why they're the number one team in the nation, throttling Wisconsin all game long in a 4-1 victory. Minnesota's move has more to do with CC's apparent inconsistency in goal than anything, but the Gophers are putting together quite a run thus far in the WCHA.

2. Colorado College (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #1
Last Week: Road Loss vs. (4) Denver
5-2-0 Overall, 3-2-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (6) Wisconsin

I struggled with moving CC down to number two in the rankings - I've thought all year long that they were the team to beat in the WCHA. However, surprisingly inconsistent goaltending from Joe Howe has me questioning whether the Tigers have what it takes to make a deep postseason run. Nobody questions their firepower, but it's defense and goaltending that win championships.

3. Minnesota-Duluth (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #4
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. (10) Alaska-Anchorage
7-3-2 Overall, 5-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (12) Minnesota State

Duluth had another good weekend at home, sweeping the cellar-dwelling Seawolves. I was down on this team at the beginning of the year but their play thus far has made me a believer. Their only blemishes thus far are a loss to a good Notre Dame team at the beginning of the season and a home sweep at the hands of the Gophers. The Bulldogs are quickly showing that they belong in the conversation of best teams in the WCHA. Minnesota-Duluth has a good chance to keep the momentum rolling next weekend as they host the Minnesota State Mavericks.

4. Denver University (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #3
Last Week: Home Win on Saturday vs. (2) Colorado College
4-3-2 Overall, 3-2-2 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (5) Nebraska-Omaha

Denver moves down mostly on the surprising play of the Duluth Bulldogs. They are still a solid team and a near-lock for home-ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. A big win against arch-rival Colorado College was their only action this last weekend, but the Pioneers face a stiff challenge against number five ranked Nebraska-Omaha this Friday and Saturday.

5. Nebraska-Omaha (No Change)
Last Ranking: #5
Last Week: Home Tie & Win vs. (11) Bemidji State
6-5-1 Overall, 5-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (4) Denver

The Mavericks took three points at home against a team that handed them six losses last season, the Bemidji State Beavers. Their goaltending situation is a mess, but their forward group is one of the best in the league.

6. Wisconsin (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #7
Last Week: Home Split vs. (1) Minnesota
5-6-1 Overall, 4-5-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (2) Colorado College

Wisconsin moves up into the top six in the power rankings on the back of a home split versus number one Minnesota. If the Badgers can stay there will likely depend on the result of their series this upcoming weekend at Colorado College. If Wisconsin can steal a game out in Colorado Springs, it may signal that they're for real. Keep an eye on the goalie situation in Madison - Joel Rumpel played back-to-back games for the first time in his career against the Gophers and had two pretty solid games. It will be interesting to see how he holds up against the high-flying Tigers.

7. North Dakota (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #6
Last Week: Idle
3-6-1 Overall, 1-5-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (11) Bemidji State

North Dakota moves out of the top six in this week's edition of the power rankings. I still think that they're a better team than Wisconsin, but the Sioux have an awfully tough hill to climb to get back to relevance in the WCHA. Going on the road to face Bemidji State isn't a cakewalk, either - a nice rivalry has developed between the two teams, and Bemidji always plays hard against the Sioux.

8. St. Cloud State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #8
Last Week: Road Split @ (12) Minnesota State
5-5-2 Overall, 3-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: Home-and-Home vs. (1) Minnesota

St. Cloud is an interesting team - just when you think they're about ready to take the next step, they go down to Mankato and lose to the hard-luck Mavericks. A road split is not the end of the world, but there are still questions surrounding this Huskies team. Goalkeeper Mike Lee is out for the season with a lower-body injury, so we'll see how backup Ryan Faragher fares between the pipes. The injury imp has hit St. Cloud hard already with senior forward Drew LeBlanc out for the season with a broken leg - how St. Cloud responds will be interesting against number one Minnesota this upcoming weekend.

9. Michigan Tech (No Change)
Last Ranking: #9
Last Week: Idle
6-3-1 Overall, 4-3-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (10) Alaska-Anchorage

The Huskies from Houghton travel to Alaska-Anchorage to take on the Seawolves in this weekend's action. The trip is always tough, and as good as Tech has been thus far this year I expect Alaska-Anchorage to take at least two points.

10. Alaska-Anchorage (No Change)
Last Ranking: #10
Last Week: Swept on the Road @ Minnesota Duluth
3-6-1 Overall, 0-6-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (9) Michigan Tech

A tough start in the league for the Seawolves this year, as they drop to 0-6-0 in their first six league games. However, that figure really could read 2-6-0 since the Seawolves have (technically) non-conference wins against Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State in beginning-of-the-season tournaments. I think this Anchorage team is better than their record, but they need to start scoring some goals in-conference - thus far, the Seawolves have scored just four goals in six WCHA games played.

11. Bemidji State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #11
Last Week: Tie, Loss vs. (5) Nebraska-Omaha
4-7-1 Overall, 2-5-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (7) North Dakota

Bemidji has a big series this upcoming weekend versus the rival Fighting Sioux. North Dakota is down this season, but they're a better team than their record. I'd say a weekend split is probably to be expected, with anything more for either side as gravy.

12. Minnesota State - Mankato (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Last Week: Split vs. (8) St. Cloud State
3-7-0 Overall, 2-4-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (3) Minnesota-Duluth

Another WCHA victory against St. Cloud has the Mavericks staunchly out of the cellar in the league table. In the power rankings, they still have a lot of work to do to move past any teams, but they have shown that they're not in as big of trouble as I originally predicted.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Minnesota
Tier 2 - Denver
Tier 3 - Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 4 - Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 5 - North Dakota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State
Tier 6 - Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage
Tier 7 - Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

This Week

Tier 1 - Minnesota, Colorado College
Tier 2 - Minnesota-Duluth, Denver
Tier 3 - No Teams
Tier 4 - Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 5 - Wisconsin, North Dakota, St. Cloud State
Tier 6 - Michigan Tech
Tier 7 - Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend: Minnesota vs. Wisconsin

See below for the three Gopher stars of last weekend's games versus the Wisconsin Badgers.

3. Ben Marshall: 0G-1A-0P

Marshall recorded a single assist in Minnesota's loss on Friday, and was a minus-three on the weekend. However, the freshman defenseman is a big part of the Gopher attack and can skate and control the puck like a young version of some great Gophers past (comparisons to Jordan Leopold or Paul Martin are not entirely inaccurate at this stage of their careers). Marshall is smooth on his skates and brings an element of offense to Minnesota's blueline that the Gophers have been lacking the past several seasons. He took over the play at several stages in Saturday's game. Marshall needs to get a little more unadventurous in the defensive zone, but his skating and offensive abilities are encouraging, and his encouraging play this weekend earned him the number three star.

2. Kent Patterson: 4 Goals Against, 31 saves on 35 shots, .886 Sv %

Don't let Patterson's seemingly pedestrian save percentage numbers fool you - the senior netminder had a solid weekend between the pipes for the Maroon and Gold. Patterson allowed four goals on the weekend - a two-on-one, a goofy deflection and a breakaway beat him on Friday, whereas the only puck to cross the Minnesota goal line on Saturday was a backdoor play. None of these goals are the fault of the goalkeeper, which is something that Patterson gives this Gopher team a lot - he makes all the saves that he's supposed to make and quite a few that he shouldn't. Wisconsin had numerous chances in Saturday's game that Patterson stopped before the Gophers were able to take over the game. He gave Minnesota a chance to win both nights, and his solid performances give him the number two star.

1. Taylor Matson: 1G-1A-2P

Matson is the captain of this Gopher team for a reason. When the team laid an egg in Friday's game, it was Matson's constant hustle and consistent play that helped Minnesota rally to a victory on Saturday night. Matson assisted on the Gophers' first goal of the game and scored the game winner in the third period. His presence on the team is an energizing one, and it is often Matson who picks the team up after a lull in energy by winning a one-on-one battle or by creating a chance by himself or for a teammate. Matson's leadership qualities are what this young Gopher team needs to keep itself on track, and the way he led the team to victory on Saturday gets him the number one star of the weekend.

Gopher Offense Stifled Friday, Dominates Saturday to Earn Weekend Split in Madison

The Minnesota Golden Gophers came into this weekend's series against the Wisconsin Badgers riding high. The Gophers were college hockey's newly christened number one team, rising all the way from the 19th position in the polls prior to the season. Minnesota had just come off an emotional sweep of their arch-rivals the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and were going to be thrown right back into the fire, traveling to another rival's rink to face the enigmatic Wisconsin Badgers. The weekend series saw sloppy play from the Gophers on Friday before returning to their dominating selves Saturday night.

Friday 11/11/11: 3-1 Gopher Loss

After the game, coach Don Lucia intimated that perhaps the Gophers had spent a lot of emotion in their series with North Dakota and didn't have anything left in the tank for the opening game against Wisconsin. Whatever the case may have been, Minnesota did not play with the fire and urgency that fans have come to expect from this year's team. Under head coach Mike Eaves, Wisconsin has been known for their defense-first, slow-tempo style of play. So often in games when two teams with drastically different styles of play face each other, it's the team that is able to make their opponent play their game that ends up winning. The Badgers were able to assert their style of play throughout the game, which is a big part of the reason why they came away with a 3-1 victory Friday night.

Although Minnesota controlled the puck for much of the first period (and much of the game), the Gophers played right into Wisconsin's hand by not forcing the play into the center of the ice. Throughout the game the Gophers seemed content to take shot attempts from the edges of the offensive zone, and the Wisconsin defense which is known for clogging up the middle seemed willing to let Minnesota take chances from the outside. Neither team scored a goal in the first period, and neither team had many quality scoring chances. The shots on goal through the opening twenty minutes were five per side.

The second period saw three goals, all by the home Badgers. First, Mark Zengerle scored on a two-on-one backdoor pass from Tyler Barnes at 5:28 of the period. Then, just 45 seconds later at 6:13 of the period, the Badgers struck again. Keegan Meuer beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson on a long shot from the right wing that hit a Minnesota stick before deflecting under the crossbar. The goal doubled the Badger lead, and Wisconsin would add one more on a Michael Mersch breakaway off of a nice feed from the first-team All-American defenseman Justin Schultz.

A three goal lead is tough to come back from, especially against the fundamentally-sound and defensive-minded Wisconsin Badgers. The lead proved too much for Minnesota, as a late Jake Hansen power play goal was all the Gophers could muster against Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel, who improved to 4-1-1 overall and appears to have taken over the goaltending duties for the Badgers. The 3-1 loss was Minnesota's first WCHA defeat of the season, but the Gophers still sat atop the WCHA table with a 6-1-0 record and 12 total points. Minnesota would look to bounce back on Saturday night and try to crack the stifling Badger defense.

Saturday 11/12/11: 4-1 Gopher Victory

As sloppy and lackadaisical as the Gophers looked Friday night, the team looked determined and hungry on Saturday. Minnesota (10-2-0 Overall, 7-1-0 WCHA) struck first in Saturday night's contest as Seth Helgeson scored his first of the season on a fluttering wrist shot from the high slot. Tyler Barnes would tie the game at one on a backdoor pass from defenseman John Ramage that beat Kent Patterson. The goal at 16:24 was the last of the period. The shots in the first favored Minnesota 12-4, and the play favored the Gophers by about that margin. The Gophers were all over Wisconsin (5-6-1 Overall, 4-5-1 WCHA) throughout the period, but the tally that matters was tied as the teams completed twenty minutes of play.

The game would remain knotted at one goal each throughout the second period as well. The most exciting event in the middle frame was a controversial five-minute Contact to the Head penalty on Wisconsin's Michael Mersch. On a play that likely would have been called a two-minute elbowing call in years past, Mersch hit Minnesota's Kyle Rau in the head/neck area. The referees conferred before kicking Mersch out of the game and awarding the Gophers a five-minute power play. We've seen this call before - the Gophers' Seth Ambroz was given five and a game for Contact to the Head in the Friday North Dakota game. It would appear with the rash of concussion injuries becoming more frequent at all levels of hockey that the NCAA has decided to crack down on this sort of play. This is fine by me so long as the referees call this penalty consistently throughout the season. The Gophers did very little with their power play, and two of the five minutes would carry over into the third period. Shots on goal after forty minutes of play favored Minnesota at 20-9.

The Gophers did not score on their two minute power play to open the third period, and although Minnesota looked like the better team throughout the game it appeared that Wisconsin's defense might pull out a point or two against a dominating Gopher team. Minnesota's offense, dormant most of the weekend, finally woke up in the final fifteen minutes of the game. First, Gopher captain Taylor Matson scored as his shot snuck through Joel Rumpel's five-hole at 6:14. The goal gave Minnesota a slim 2-1 lead, but the Gophers would add to it. Nick Bjugstad scored his ninth goal of the season on a turnover that gave him a partial breakaway at 12:16. Bjugstad, often known for his nifty stickhandling and physical presence, unloaded with a slapshot from right between the circles that picked the upper corner. Minnesota would tack on another tally as Wisconsin-native Nate Condon split the Badger defense and beat Rumpel at 15:26. The Gophers barely lost control of the puck after that, putting on a clinic of puck control as the clock wound down. The shots on goal ended at 33-14 in favor of Minnesota, and the win gave the Gophers 14 points in the WCHA, three better than second-place Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha.

Video Highlights

Follow this link to see the BTN's video highlights of Saturday's game:


Next Week: Gophers vs. St. Cloud State

Next week, the Gophers play a home-and-home series against St. Cloud State. The Huskies are coming off a road split versus Minnesota State. They're still struggling to deal with the loss of senior leader Drew LeBlanc, who is out for at least three months with a broken leg. Minnesota leads the all time series 48-26-12, including an 8-3-1 mark in their last 12 games.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Week 5

Things are starting to settle in the WCHA after five weeks of hockey action. Let's see who's up and who's down:

WCHA Results, Week 5:

Alaska-Anchorage - Idle
Bemidji State - Win, Loss @ Lake Superior State
Colorado College - Loss, Win @ Nebraska-Omaha
Denver - Tie, Loss vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Michigan Tech - Win, Loss vs. Minnesota State
Minnesota - Win, Win vs. North Dakota
Minnesota-Duluth - Tie, Win @ Denver
Minnesota State - Loss, Win @ Michigan Tech
Nebraska Omaha - Win, Loss vs. Colorado College
North Dakota - Loss, Loss @ Minnesota
St. Cloud State - Win, Tie vs. Wisconsin
Wisconsin - Loss, Tie @ St. Cloud State

Power Rankings:

1. Colorado College (No Change)
Last Ranking: #1
Last Week: Road Split vs. (5) Nebraska-Omaha
5-1-0 Overall, 3-1-0 WCHA
Next Week: No Game Friday, @ (3) Denver Saturday

Yes, I am aware that Minnesota jumped up to number one in the polls this week. Yes, I am aware that the Gophers are at the top of the WCHA standings. However, this ranking is a barometer of where I think teams will end up at the end of the season not just in the league but on the national scene, and I still think Colorado College is the team to beat in the WCHA.

2. Minnesota (No Change)
Last Ranking: #2
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. (6) North Dakota
9-1-0 Overall, 6-0-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ Wisconsin

The Gophers continued their perfect start to the WCHA season with a sweep of the hated North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Minnesota is still number two in the power rankings, but they're breathing down Colorado College's neck. The early returns make me a believer in this team - but an injury to a key player such as Kent Patterson, Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau or Nate Schmidt could really hamper the Gophers' chances at postseason glory.

3. Denver University (No Change)
Last Ranking: #3
Last Week: Home Tie & Loss vs. (4) Minnesota-Duluth
3-3-2 Overall, 2-2-2 WCHA
Next Week: No Game Friday, vs. (1) Colorado College Saturday

Another surprising weekend for Denver, as they only manage to take one point at home against Minnesota-Duluth. Duluth is a good team, but so is Denver, and a one point weekend at home is not something for this team to be proud of. Denver needs to hang in there until goaltender Sam Brittain can return from his torn ACL - he's a game-changer.

4. Minnesota-Duluth (No Change)
Last Ranking: #4
Last Week: Road Tie & Win vs. (3) Denver
5-3-2 Overall, 3-2-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (10) Alaska-Anchorage

Duluth is proving me wrong so far this season. I had them pegged as a middle-of-the-pack WCHA squad this year with all the defections they sustained from their NCAA Championship team, but they keep beating quality opponents. Taking three points on the road against the number three team in this power ranking Denver might not move them past the Pioneers yet, but it does move them up a tier (see below).

5. Nebraska-Omaha (No Change)
Last Ranking: #5
Last Week: Home Split vs. (1) Colorado College
5-5-0 Overall, 4-2-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (11) Bemidji State

UNO split at home last weekend against the number one ranked (in this ranking) Colorado College. Thus far it doesn't look like the Mavericks are going to light the world on fire, but they're a solid team that will win a lot of games against other good teams this year.

6. North Dakota (No Change)
Last Ranking: #6
Last Week: Swept on the Road @ (2) Minnesota
3-6-1 Overall, 1-5-0 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

Even though the Sioux were swept on the road at Minnesota last weekend, I still like this team better than the six below it. Aaron Dell is solid between the pipes and kept his team in both the games against the Gophers over the weekend. If North Dakota wants to earn home ice in the WCHA they'll need to find some secondary scoring - their top line of Danny Kristo, Brock Nelson and Corban Knight is about their only scoring threat. A healthy Rocco Grimaldi will go a long way towards this team's success.

7. Wisconsin (No Change)
Last Ranking: #7
Last Week: Road Loss & Tie vs. (8) St. Cloud State
4-5-1 Overall, 3-4-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (2) Minnesota

Just when Wisconsin's goalie situation was settling down, St. Cloud hung a seven-spot on Landon Peterson during Friday's beatdown. Backup Joel Rumpel gave up three goals in an overtime tie on Saturday. Will we see another goalie position battle in Madison right after we thought it had been settled?

8. St. Cloud State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #8
Last Week: Home Win & Tie vs. (7) Wisconsin
4-4-2 Overall, 2-1-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (12) Minnesota State

St. Cloud again asserted itself against a decent team last weekend, taking three points from Wisconsin at home. It appears that the Huskies are a home ice contender this season in the league. However, they'll need to overcome a big loss they suffered last weekend, as senior Drew LeBlanc broke his leg and is likely out for the remainder of the season. That is a big loss for the team and the reason they did not jump past Wisconsin in the rankings this week.

9. Michigan Tech (No Change)
Last Ranking: #9
Last Week: Home Split vs. (12) Minnesota State
6-3-1 Overall, 4-3-1 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

Tech's first home loss came from an unlikely source in the battered and bruised Minnesota State Mavericks. What a turnaround for this program, though, to think that there's disappointment at only splitting in a WCHA series.

10. Alaska-Anchorage (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #11
Last Week: Idle
3-4-1 Overall, 0-4-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (4) Minnesota-Duluth

The Seawolves did not play last weekend and face a tough UMD team next weekend. A split would prove they're playing for keeps this year in the WCHA, but a sweep would leave them at 0-6-0 to start the season in the league.

11. Bemidji State (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #10
Last Week: Split @ Lake Superior State
4-6-0 Overall, 2-4-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (5) Nebraska-Omaha

Bemidji is a really good number 11 team in the WCHA. With the exception of the 1 vs 12 playoff series, each WCHA first round contest should be a tough one.

12. Minnesota State - Mankato (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Last Week: Split @ (9) Michigan Tech
2-6-0 Overall, 1-3-0 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (8) St. Cloud State

Maybe Minnesota State isn't as dead in the water as earlier predicted. The Mavericks split with a surprisingly tough Michigan Tech team in Houghton last weekend. They take on a surging but injury ridden St. Cloud State next weekend.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College
Tier 2 - Minnesota, Denver
Tier 3 - No Teams
Tier 4 - Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 5 - North Dakota, Wisconsin
Tier 6 - St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech
Tier 7 - Bemidji State, Alaska-Anchorage
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

This Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Minnesota
Tier 2 - Denver
Tier 3 - Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 4 - Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 5 - North Dakota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State
Tier 6 - Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage
Tier 7 - Bemidji State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gopher Hockey Recruiting Update: Minnesota Picks Up Cammarata, Brodzinski in Big Recruiting Week

The Gophers have received word that forward Taylor Cammarata and defenseman Michael Brodzinksi have committed to the University of Minnesota Men's Hockey Program. Both players are likely to set foot on campus for the 2013-2014 seasons.

Cammarata, perhaps the nation's most highly regarded 1995 birth year player, has lit up every league he's ever played in. Only around 5'6" or 5'7", the sniper appears to be a part of Don Lucia's "going small" strategy, and is a player with size in the same vein as a Kyle Rau, Sam Warning, Ben Marshall or future Gopher Justin Kloos. Although all of the previously mentioned Gophers are great players, Cammarata could be the best of the bunch. The Minnesota-native tallied 71 goals and 139 total points in just 54 games for the Shattuck-St. Mary's Under 16 team, and already has 11 total points (3G-8A) in 11 games for the Waterloo Blackhawks USHL team. Cammarata was the first player selected in the USHL Futures draft last year, and his 11 points thus far are good for 7th place in the league overall and first on his team - nearly unheard of for a player of his age in the USHL.

Michael Brodzinski is a Blaine defenseman who turned down a chance to play for the US National Development Team to stay at home and play for his high school. He is currently playing in the High School Elite League, where he scored five goals and tallied 11 assists in 23 games. Brodzinski, another '95 birth year player, scored 14 goals and added 17 assists as a sophomore on the Blaine blueline last season. The 5'11", 180 pound Brodzinski could stay at Blaine throughout his senior high school season or he could leave after his junior year to play in the USHL.

Exciting times for the Golden Gopher program!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Minnesota Comes from Behind Late in 3rd Period to Stun the Sioux 3-2, Sweep the Weekend Series

As Don Lucia said earlier in the week: "If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man."

A weekend sweep for the Gophers should go a long way towards confirming Minnesota's status as "the man" in the WCHA.

A furious third period comeback sparked by the Gophers' often-impressive fourth line erased a one-goal deficit and a late Kyle Rau goal led Minnesota (9-1-0 Overall, 6-0-0 WCHA) to a Saturday win and a weekend sweep over the hated North Dakota Fighting Sioux (3-6-1 Overall, 1-5-0 WCHA).

Saturday 10/5/11 - 3-2 Gopher Win

Minnesota's Friday night opening period was tentative and nervous. Saturday was a completely different story. The Gophers came out guns blazing and took it to the Sioux throughout the frame. The Maroon and Gold outshot North Dakota 19-5 in the period, and it appeared that they'd continue their dominance on the scoreboard as well. Nick Bjugstad scored a great hustle goal at 7:09 of the period, as he forechecked hard to pop the puck loose from the North Dakota defense before parking himself in front of the net and jamming a Zach Budish pass home. The goal gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead which they would relinquish before the period expired. Brock Nelson scored on a laser wrist shot that beat Kent Patterson high to the glove side. The power play goal came at 9:46 and evened the game up at one goal a piece, which is where the score would stay as the players entered the locker rooms for the first intermission.

The North Dakota coaches must have made some adjustments between periods, because it was the Fighting Sioux that would have the better of the play in the second period. Minnesota let their game lapse a little bit in the middle frame of the contest, failing to connect tape-to-tape on passes and not battling to win the one-on-one puck battles that so often define outcomes in games. The Sioux on the other hand were hustling to pucks and overall elevated their game. Although Minnesota outshot North Dakota 12-6 in the period, most of the Gopher shots were from the perimeter. The Gophers did not connect in the period, but North Dakota's freshman phenom Rocco Grimaldi put the Sioux ahead 2-1 with yet another laser wrister that beat Kent Patterson high to the glove side at 8:39 of the middle frame. No more scoring would occur in the period, and Minnesota would need to regroup before the third if they wanted to make some noise and grab another point or two in the standings.

Thankfully, the Gophers responded in the third. The first ten minutes of the period were filled with mostly futile Gopher attempts to get the puck to the front of the net. Minnesota was pressing, which led to a few big Sioux chances - most notably a 3-on-1 in which Ben Blood fed Brock Nelson in front of the Gopher goal. Netminder Patterson sprawled his right pad out to make the save and keep the game alive for the Gophers. Minnesota needed just one shot to sneak past Sioux goalie Aaron Dell to tie the game. A tall order, but the Gophers got just what they were looking for when a great hustle play by Minnesota's fourth line created a turnover behind the net. Travis Boyd, the freshman fourth line center out of Hopkins, streaked behind the net to intercept a D-to-D pass and fed the puck into the slot for senior Nick Larson. Larson's shot at 13:56 slithered through Dell's five hole and somehow made its way into the back of the net to tie the game at 2-2.

With just six minutes left to play, the Gophers had stolen all of the momentum and it appeared that the game would head into overtime. However, with less than a minute to go Nick Bjugstad gained control of the puck behind the Sioux net and threw it out into the crease. Zach Budish and Kyle Rau were in front of the net, and although Dell turned aside Budish's first attempt it was Rau that grabbed the rebound and stuffed it into the corner of the net. Rau's goal at 19:14 gave the Gophers the lead at 3-2, and that is how the game would finish.

Minnesota's sweep of North Dakota was the first since 1996, and it gave them a perfect 6-0 WCHA record heading into their series next weekend at Wisconsin. The Gophers are now 9-1-0 on the young season and are perhaps the hottest team in the country. They've shown they can win big, they can come from behind and they can gut out a close victory. Jump on the bandwagon, ladies and gentlemen, because these guys are for real.

Game Highlights courtesy of Gopher Sports

Here are the Gopher goals in the third period:

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Travis Boyd: 0G-1A-1P

The entirety of the fourth line deserves some recognition here. The best Gopher teams have always had a fourth line they could rely on to hustle and play good minutes. The championship years of the early 2000's saw the gold standard of Gopher fourth lines with Jake Flemming, Jon Waibel and Garret Smaagaard. Well, don't look now but Minnesota has a pretty good group playing on the fourth line this year, with Travis Boyd centering Nick Larson and Tom Serratore. Serratore scored a goal in last night's game, and Nick Larson got the game-tying goal in the, but it was Travis Boyd that stood out to me in Saturday's matchup. Boyd does a lot of little things right. He's a good two-way forward with a little bit of offensive pizzaz and plenty of hockey knowledge. Boyd did the bulk of the work on the Gophers' second goal, and we see a lot of Travis Boyd on the excellent Gopher penalty kill. Great game by him and a very deserving number three star.

2. Kyle Rau: 1G-0A-1P

Rau is always in the right place at the right time. This kid has a higher hockey IQ than any player I've ever seen. He was right next to the net at the end of the game and it seems like the puck just squirts onto his stick in big situations. Rau had plenty of chances on the backdoor tonight, but he put in the one that mattered with only 45 seconds left to seal the Gopher victory. Rau's gutty goal earned him the number two star of the game.

1. Kent Patterson: 17 Saves on 19 Shots, .895 Sv %

Patterson did not have his best game tonight, but he made the big saves in the third period when the Gophers needed him to keep them in the game. A good positional goaltender, Patterson always makes the solid saves and avoids giving up too many rebounds. His saves in the third allowed the goal by Nick Larson to matter. Patterson's key presence in net earns him my number one star.

Next Week: AT Wisconsin

The Gophers travel to Madison next weekend to take on the Badgers. Wisconsin is an enigma of a team this season, sporting some good wins (vs. Nebraska-Omaha, sweep vs. North Dakota) and some rough losses (vs. UNO after being up 3-0 early, at St. Cloud 7-2, swept at Michigan Tech). The team is still trying to find its identity after a dearth of early departures from last year's squad, including both senior goalkeepers. Freshman Landon Peterson appears to have taken the reins in goal for the Badgers, but the start has been shaky at best. Winning on the road is always difficult so a road split for the Gophers would not be a bad result, but I'm hoping that the Gophers' depth and talent advantages over Bucky will net at least three points for Minnesota in the WCHA standings. Both games next weekend start at 7:05 central time.

Go Gophers!