Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gopher Offense Comes Alive Again as Minnesota Downs Wisconsin in Friday's Series Opener, Ties Badgers Saturday to Take 3 Points in Madison

As the sands of the hourglass wind down on the Gopher Hockey season, Minnesota now literally needs every win it can get the remainder of the season in order to salvage anything from this year. Wisconsin, at 7-7-3 just 17 games into the season and with a worse record than the Gophers at that point (Minnesota @ 9-7-1 thru 17 games), has rattled off 12 wins in their last 15 games to put themselves staunchly in the national title picture. Minnesota, however, has continued to stagnate, going 4-5-3 since then and sliding back to the middle of the WCHA pack.

The teams run different systems, with Wisconsin traditionally playing solid team defense and relying on highly mobile offensive defensemen while Minnesota typically favors high-flying forwards and quick passing. Wisconsin makes its living on its 4th-in-the-nation power play, controlling the puck and using crafty defensemen to make good offensive plays and put the puck in the net. This is a concern for Minnesota, whose 75% penalty kill conversion rate is close to last in the nation. The Gophers need to find that spark of offense that they had in their 7-3 rout of WCHA-leading Denver.

Friday: 5-2 Gopher Win

The first period featured a cagey opening, as both teams struggled to establish their style. Wisconsin, forechecking hard right from the start, gave Minnesota some fits breaking out of the zone. However, once the Gophers broke the Badger press, Minnesota controlled the puck possession battle and had ample offensive zone time.

It was the Gophers that got the first power play chance at 8:01 of the period, but inept puck control gave the Badgers a relatively easy kill. Wisconsin's top ranked power play got a chance at 12:38, as Minnesota's Justin Holl took a hooking call. The Gophers' unheralded PK stopped the UW attackers, and Minnesota got yet another power play chance at 14:14 of the period. This time the Gophers would cash in, as a half-fanned Mike Hoeffel shot from the mid-slot deflected off a Badger defender's stick high in the air, dropping down behind Wisconsin's netminder Scott Gudmandson and into the net. Minnesota held their 1-0 lead into the first intermission, and the rest of the period after the Gopher goal was fairly chippy, with five penalties resulting from a scrum at 15:49 and another penalty to Minnesota's Aaron Ness in the final minute of the period that would put the Badgers on the power play going into the second period.

Wisconsin did not pass up their opening-minute power play chance, as Jake Gardiner potted a shot from the top of the right circle when the puck clanged off the post from a shot to the right of Patterson and right to Gardiner's stick. The goal tied the game just 0:32 into the second. The Gophers appeared to be melting down when Mike Hoeffel took a hooking penalty off the ensuing face-off just four seconds after the Badger goal, but again the Gopher penalty kill stiffened and shut the Badgers down. That power play was relatively short-lived, as Wisconsin's Michael Mersch took an interference penalty at 1:35. On the 4-on-4 play that followed and just seven seconds after the Mersch penalty), Minnesota's Jacob Cepis (who loves to scrum around at the doorstep) took a couple whacks at a puck that was loose in front of Gudmandson before finally lifting the biscuit over the goalkeeper's prone body and into the net to give the Gophers their second lead of the night at 2-1. Since the Gophers scored with their own man still in the penalty box, they still reaped the reward of the Mersch penalty. When Minnesota's man came out of the sin bin, the Gophers enjoyed a power play that had the potential to put the team up by two goals. Taylor Matson was the hero, getting another rebound at the doorstep and shoving the puck past the outstretched leg of Gudmandson to give the Gophers that 3-1 lead.

The next ten minutes of the game were critical, as a flurry of offense had opened the period. Minnesota did a good job of protecting the lead, limiting Wisconsin's chances and containing their offense. A turning point of the game occurred in the middle part of the middle period. The aforementioned Badger Michael Mersch led a 2-on-2 rush up his own right wing. Upon entering the Minnesota zone, he fired the puck on a partially screened shot at Patterson's cage. The shot hit the joist where the post meets the crossbar and caromed away from the net. Had that shot gone in, we may have seen a different Badger response in the game. As it stood, however, minutes later Minnesota's Taylor Matson came around from behind the Badger net and, inexplicably left alone, fired a laser wrist shot into the top corner from point-blank range to give the Gophers a near-insurmountable 3 goal lead with just over a minute remaining in the second period.

The Gophers would hold that lead going into the third, and indeed padded it on a Patrick White power-play tally (a great one-time pass and shot from Erik Haula in the low circle to Gudmandson's left all the way across the ice to White in the low circle to Gudmandson's right). Although Wisconsin would score in the final minute on a 5-on-3 power play, Minnesota's thorough dominance of the game was reflected in the 5-2 final score.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Player(s) of the Game: 3 Stars

Although I've previously trimmed the 3 stars segment of the blog down to just one player of the game from each game, I cannot help but recognize the three players that impressed me more than any on Friday:

Third Star: Kent Patterson

Although by the looks of the scoresheet Patterson enjoyed an easy 3 goal win, this game could have been a heck of a lot closer had it not been for Patterson's often solid, often spectacular play. Patterson saved (I believe) two Wisconsin breakaway chances, and he and the penalty kill turned away eight of the Badgers' ten powerplay chances (and really it was eight for nine, as the 5-on-3 goal in the final minute was not the most critical juncture of the game). Patterson faced 38 shots and stopped 36 of them... without his effort the Gophers could be looking at a much closer game.

Second Star: Jacob Cepis

Cepis was all over the ice, tallying the team's critical second goal that answered the Gardiner goal for Wisconsin. I absolutely LOVE the way this kid plays. He is a waterbug that isn't afraid to go to contact if he thinks it will help the team score. Cepis is the only consistent player that the Gophers have, and his solid efforts are a big key in the turnaround that the team has witnessed the past four weeks.

First Star: Taylor Matson

Another all-effort-all-the-time guy, Matson is finally being rewarded for all his hard work this year with some pub on the scoresheet. Matson netted his eighth and ninth goals of the season, including the Gophers' back-breaking third and fourth goals of the game. Matson wins face-offs, plays on the penalty kill, and generally is a guy that you like to see out on the ice when he's wearing the uniform of the team you're cheering for. He's finally managed to stay healthy for a whole season (knock on wood) and we're seeing what type of player he can become. He'll be a big cog in this team's chances next season, but for now he'll have to settle with being the number one star of the game.

Saturday: 3-3 Tie

Honestly, I was not able to watch the Saturday game. However, from what I understand, the Gophers played a solid game and fought Wisconsin to a tough 3-3 draw. The Gophers went ahead early in the third period on a Jacob Cepis breakaway goal but gave the lead right back on a Jefferson Dahl tally for Wisconsin. The teams went into overtime with Wisconsin getting the better of the chances in the extra session. All in all, a good game for the Gophers to come out with a point.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Player of the Game Award: Jacob Cepis

See above for a glowing description of Mr. Cepis' style of play. Saturday, Cepis scored a goal and added a helper, the goal coming on a breakaway early in the third period to give the Gophers the lead (at the time) 3-2. This guy is literally the heart and soul of the team, and it makes you wonder how a one and a half year transfer from Parma, Ohio can exhibit more Pride on Ice than any other Minnesotan on the roster. All I know is this: we've gotta recruit the Pride on Ice wherever we can find it, and we've gotta let the players know that when you put on the "M" you are a part of something special, something bigger than you and something worth giving 100% every shift you're on the ice like those that have gone before you did. Cepis is one of the guys that plays like that. Whether or not he plays for the "M", he and Tony Lucia embodied Pride on Ice more than any Gopher in recent memory. I will be sad to see Cepis go at the end of the year, as he's been my favorite player to don the Maroon and Gold in the recent past.


Well, coming off of their "best game of the year" the Gophers managed to repeat the performance on Friday and came awfully close to it Saturday, too. I would not want to face this Gopher team if I was anyone come playoff time. Solid All-League goaltending and a balanced scoring attack could spell trouble for any team facing them in the post-season. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually like this team's chances in the NCAA tournament. That is, if they get there. The Gophers sit on the outside looking in at the present, 18th in the Pairwise and needing to get to 15th to stand a chance at an at-large bid. At this point, the team needs to win out in the regular season, make the Final Five, and make the Final Five championship game in order to have a legitimate shot at one of those at-large bids.

The other path, of course, is for the team to just win the Final Five, securing the league's auto-bid and automatically making the NCAA tournament. Honestly, I can see this team doing either or both of those tall tasks. Although Minnesota is 2-2-2 in their last six games, this team has played lights-out hockey the past four or five weekends. They've shown that they can beat any team in the nation this year, even earlier in the season when they weren't playing all that great (wins against MI, @ UND). Recently, in their games @ UMD, against DU and @ UW, the Gophers have flashed something that has not been seen for quite a while: the ability to absolutely dominate the game.

Yes, it was only for short stretches in Duluth. But it's getting there. The team thwomped Denver on Saturday, and followed it up with a Wisconsin whooping on Friday. It's really too bad that this team couldn't win just a couple more games in the first half (and, actually, only one game is really hurting them from a PWR standpoint: the OT loss against Union). However, this late-season charge certainly has the rest of the WCHA standing up and taking notice of the Gophers again, which is as it should be. Although it may be just a tiny bit too late this season, the surge has reaffirmed for me that Don Lucia still is the right man behind the bench at the University of Minnesota. Maybe a change of assistant coaches is in order, but The Don has brought this team together without leading scorer and captain Jay Barriball the last several weeks and absolutely thrashed the better teams in the conference.

With the moves Coach Lucia is making to recruit more four-year type college players, I am now back on the Lucia bandwagon.

The team's next series is at home against Michigan Tech (4-24-4 Overall, 2-20-2 WCHA). This is an ABSOLUTE MUST SWEEP series in the Gophers' quest for an at-large bid. In fact, the remaining games are must wins until the Final Five Championship game. This Michigan Tech squad did beat Denver last weekend in Denver, so they do have some spoiler in them. However, as Don Lucia said in his media interviews this week, the Gophers "are not good enough to overlook anyone" and at this point of the season, they cannot afford to. Four points is a must this weekend. Go get 'em, boys.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Minnesota Explodes for 7 Goals, Rips #4 Denver in Series Finale

Minnesota's 2-1 loss to Denver on Friday night was most notable for the Gophers' inability to score goals. The Gophers had plenty of scoring chances, but simply could not beat Denver's Sam Brittain between the pipes.

That was not an issue Saturday night. Minnesota beat both Brittain and Denver's backup goalie Adam Murray a combined seven times, and the Gophers stomped all over Denver to the tune of a 7-3 victory.

Saturday: 7-3 Gopher Victory

Saturday's game opened very similarly to Friday night's contest, with both teams playing well early on. Mark Alt took an early boarding penalty, and it appeared that Denver took an early lead on a quick deflection in front of Kent Patterson. However, the referees took a look at the play and ruled that the Denver player kicked the puck into the net, so the goal was disallowed.

That disallowed goal was about as close to scoring as Denver would get until the third period. The Gophers absolutely dominated the game from this point onward. Jacob Cepis scored on a wraparound at 7:22 of the period. Taylor Matson scored on a shot from the low slot less than a minute later, at 8:18. Nick Bjugstad took a elbowing penalty at 9:42, but even that couldn't stop the Gopher attack. Minnesota killed the penalty and Mark Alt hit a streaking Bjugstad on a breakaway out of the box, who beat Brittain top-corner to give the Gophers a resounding three goals in just 4:27 and take a commanding 3-0 lead.

Although they wouldn't score any more goals in the first period, Minnesota was by no means done putting pucks in the net. The Gophers scored 33 seconds into the second period on an Erik Haula wrist shot, and Denver coach George Gwozdecky decided he'd seen enough of Brittain, pulling him in favor of backup Adam Murray. Murray didn't fare much better, as Mike Hoeffel and Cade Fairchild beat Murray in the second period to stake the Gophers to an insurmountable 6-0 lead.

Denver won the third period 3-1, but the story of the period was a major brawl involving the Gophers' Jake Hansen and Denver's David Makowski. Hansen and Makowski were given 5-minute majors for fighting and game disqualifications. This means that Hansen and Makowski will miss their teams next games, which could loom large for the Gophers. A Patrick White goal at 12:40 of the period rounded out the Gopher scoring on the night, and capped off a great game that rewarded Minnesota for a solid effort.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Star of the Game: Jacob Cepis

Cepis scored the game's first goal on a nifty wraparound move, and added an assist on the team's sixth goal of the game, but Cepis wins this award for the way that he plays. Cepis gives 100% effort whenever he's on the ice, constantly moves his feet and is continuously challenging players that are bigger and stronger than he is. Very few players in college hockey, though, are stronger on the puck than Cepis. He's not afraid to go to the net, and that fearlessness results in power play opportunities and goal scoring chances for his team. Cepis is often the offensive star of the game, and on a night when his team scored seven goals, Cepis deserves the star of the game for helping to put the team in position to win.

Saturday Conclusion

A great win for the Gophers against a good team, but this can only be the beginning. We need to see consistent good effort the rest of the way, and the team's goal scoring touch needs to stick against Wisconsin next weekend. The Gophers need something like five wins in their next six games, and two against Wisconsin would help the team immensely in its quest to make the NCAA tournament. The season is winding down... the time to win is now!

Minnesota Plays Another Great Game Against League-Leading Denver, But Lack Of Goals Dooms Gophers in 2-1 Loss

Entering the second of three tough weekend series', the Minnesota Gophers (11-11-4 Overall, 8-9-3 WCHA) needed a couple of outstanding efforts if they wished to wrest some points away from the WCHA-leading Denver Pioneers (17-6-5 Overall, 13-4-3 WCHA). The keys to the game would be (as usual) Kent Patterson's play between the pipes for Minnesota and the Gophers' ability to stop Denver on the penalty kill.

Friday: 2-1 Gopher Loss

The Gophers skated on the ice without their leading scorer in Jay Barriball. Barriball, who leads the Gophers with 12 goals and 23 points, has been fairly inconsistent this year, but even so his presence will be missed on a team that has struggled to score goals of late. Despite a balanced and potent Denver attack which features seven players with 20+ points and three players with 29+ points, the Minnesota Gophers played even-up with Denver the entire first period and throughout the game.

Minnesota and Denver traded scoring chances in the first period, with Minnesota putting nine shots on Denver's freshman goalie Sam Brittain. Many of the Gophers' shots were of the long-range variety, as Minnesota's offensive output of late has been a long range shot and a hope for a tip-in. Denver, on the other hand, had several odd-man rush chances in the period, but Minnesota's Patterson stopped all 10 Pioneer shots to keep the teams tied at 0. Each team took two penalties in the period, and neither team allowed a power play goal.

The action heated up in the second period, as Minnesota had three power play opportunities and used them to put 17 shots on Brittain in the period. The Gophers also scored the first goal of the game, as Erik Haula tipped a Justin Holl shot from the point past Brittain's glove and into the net at 10:02 of the period. Denver had their chances in the period, though, and Kent Patterson was again tested with several partial-breakaways and odd-man rushes throughout the second. Denver made their mark on the power play when Drew Shore tipped a very high shot from the point past Kent Patterson. The referees ruled the play a goal on the ice, and although several replays showed that Shore's stick made contact with the puck above his own helmet, the refs only had access to an overhead camera and could therefore not rule the play anything other than a goal.

The play, at 12:42 of the period, tied the game at one-one. It came on the power play, and once again showcased Minnesota's inability to stop the opposing team when down a man. The Gophers are just north of 75% on the season, and this stat NEEDS to get better if Minnesota is going to have a chance of competing in the post-season. Although Minnesota had another power play chance late in the period, Brittain made the stops he needed to in order to keep his team tied, and both teams skated off the ice after 40 minutes of play tied at one.

This year's Gopher team is a conundrum. They can play great against good teams and horribly against bad teams, but they have a difficult time of beating anyone and everyone. They don't do a good job of protecting a lead and they don't do a good job of playing from behind. So when Denver's Jason Zucker (the WCHA's leading goal scorer and the odds-on favorite to win the WCHA Freshman of the Year award) streaked into the offensive zone and put the puck past Kent Patterson to give Denver a 2-1 lead, it spelled trouble for the Gophers. Minnesota has played well in many games this year, but the Gophers seem to lack a natural goal scorer the likes of a Jason Zucker, Mike Connolly, Matt Frattin or Justin Fontaine. That lack of killer instinct hurt the Gophers on Friday, as they simply could not beat Denver's Sam Brittain, and although they had many great chances and controlled the game just as much as Denver did, they lack the guy that can put the team on his back and score a goal on his own to get the team in the game. Despite another great team effort on both sides of the puck, Minnesota walked away from the game with zero points in the WCHA, and remained ensconced in 8th place in the WCHA standings.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Star of the Game: Kent Patterson

Patterson made 28 saves on 30 shots, but he made at least five saves on partial breakaways and two-on-one chances. The first goal he gave up (the Shore PP goal in the second period) should not have been ruled a goal, and the Zucker goal in the third was just a strong move from a big-time goal scorer. Patterson again gave the team a chance to win the game, and his contributions to the team really cannot be overstated. Another great game from the junior netminder, but he again comes out on the wrong side of it on the stat sheet.

Friday Conclusion

This one hurts. The margin of error for this team is now razor thin. The Gophers have one more game versus Denver, two at Wisconsin, two against Michigan Tech, and two at Bemidji State before the WCHA playoffs. Of the seven remaining regular season games, the Gophers probably cannot afford to go any worse than 6-1-0, and then need to advance past the first round of the WCHA playoffs in order to stand a chance of making the NCAA tournament. With Patterson in goal anything is possible for this team, but Minnesota needs to learn to score goals if they plan on making any sort of late-season run into the playoffs.

However, the play of this team is encouraging. This makes three games in a row that Minnesota has played as well as or better than a tough opponent (the Gophers played well both games against highly ranked UMD before this game against DU). As long as the team keeps playing well, they should have a good chance of beating anyone. As long-time Gopher coach Doug Woog says, though: "Playing well isn't good enough. Winning is good enough." Hopefully the Gophers can continue playing well AND start winning in Saturday's matchup against Denver.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Gophers Play Even Series in Duluth, Only Come Away with One Point for the Weekend

As the noose tightens around the Minnesota Gophers, each and every point lost is another nail in the NCAA Tournament coffin. Last weekend in Duluth the Gophers played two full games of solid hockey but pounded three more nails onto an already tight coffin lid, as Minnesota tied and lost to take only one out of a possible four points.

Friday: 2-2 Tie

The Gophers played a good game for 65 minutes and never trailed on Friday night against the #3 team in the country. For a team that just hasn't lived up to what it should be this year, it is only fitting that Minnesota would only come away with a tie.

The Gophers opened the game with a fairly unusual penalty kill, weathering a Seth Helgeson elbowing call at 3:40 of the first. Minnesota got a power play chance of its own on a Trent Palm holding call at 7:40, and the Gophers capitalized on Cade Fairchild's fourth goal of the season, with helpers from Nate Condon and Nick Bjugstad at 9:34 of the first. Although there was no more scoring in the period, there were plenty of chances, as UMD had two more power plays and Minnesota had one more chance on the man-advantage. The Gophers out-shot the Bulldogs 14-10 in the period, and looked every bit as good as the #3 team in the nation.

The second period began yet again with an early Seth Helgeson penalty, a tripping call just nine seconds into the period. This penalty was set up by an incredibly boneheaded play by Cade Fairchild that resulted in a two-on-one and a near-goal that was only averted by the Helgeson penalty. The Gophers once again killed the Minnesota-Duluth power play, but Duluth struck just minutes after the power play expired. Justin Fontaine scored his 16th goal of the season at 5:46 to level the game at one goal each. A few minutes later, Jay Barriball snuck behind the defense and was fed a breakaway pass to go in all alone versus UMD goalie Kenny Reiter, but Barriball's shot was not high enough on the glove side to beat Reiter and the Bulldog netminder stoned Barriball to keep the game tied up. Barriball, though, would get another chance, when on a great hustle play Barriball stole the puck from a UMD defenseman in the corner and broke right to the net, stuffing the puck past Reiter through the five-hole and giving the Gophers another lead over Duluth at 8:42 of the second.

Again, Duluth responded right back just ninety seconds later, as Mike Connolly beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson to tie the game back up at two. Both teams played at a high level the rest of the period, but Patterson and Reiter were up to the challenge, with each netminder stopping the remainder of the shots in the period to lead their teams into the locker rooms tied at two.

The third period began with a third Seth Helgeson early penalty, this one a coincidental minor for roughing with the Bulldogs' Jake Hendrickson. The Bulldogs had the better of the play in the third period, with their skill players controlling the pace and controlling the puck in the Minnesota defensive zone for long stretches of time. Kent Patterson would not let his team lose, stopping all 14 UMD shots in the period.

Patterson definitely gave his team a chance to win the game, but the Gophers could not capitalize on their numerous chances in the third, and the teams ended regulation play tied at two. The five-minute overtime featured chances for both teams, including a rare overtime power play for the Gophers on a boarding call that may have been a checking-from-behind penalty in regulation play. However, other than one wild flurry in front of the Bulldog net, the Gophers did not get much going on their power play, and the end of the game felt a lot like both teams were content with the tie - okay for #3 Duluth, but the Gophers need every win they can get down the stretch.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Player of the Game: Kent Patterson

I'm glad I finally named this award after the guy that wins it every night. Patterson kept the team in the game and gave them a chance to win. It's not his fault that the team can't score goals and can't capitalize on their opportunities. The team played pretty well in front of Patterson on Friday, helping him kill off all five of UMD's power plays.

Friday's Conclusion

A tie was a good start for this Gopher team, but a start is all that it was. Minnesota has dug itself such a big hole thus far into the season that it needs every single point that it can get, and "losing" a point in a game when the team could have stolen a win at Duluth could loom large as we move towards the end of the season and the margin of error gets narrower and narrower. The Gophers cannot afford much worse than a tie on Saturday, as the schedule only gets tougher from here on out. Would they be able to put together another good performance and come away with a win in the series finale?

Saturday: 6-4 Gopher Loss

Well, Minnesota did put together another good performance. Unfortunately, Bulldog forward Mike Connolly proved to be too much for the Gopher defensive corps and for Gopher goalie Kent Patterson. Connolly scored five goals, including Duluth's first four, and a questionable call by the referees helped to stifle the Gopher comeback and give the Bulldogs the victory.

Although the Gophers started the first period with a power play at 5:40, it was the Bulldogs that got on the board first in the period. Mike Connolly's first goal of the game came at 8:04 of the period. His second goal of the game came at 15:49 of the period, on the power play. His third goal of the game came at 1:22 of the second period, and occurred when Nico Sacchetti slid into Kent Patterson, knocking the rebound into his own net. This wouldn't be Sacchetti's only bad play of the game, but more on that later.

The Gophers found themselves down 3-0 just 21:22 into the game, but this team has shown more life in the last few weeks, and began to roll right after Connolly's hat-trick goal. Kevin Wehrs scored on a shot from the point just 33 seconds after the Bulldog goal to bring the Gophers within two at 3-1. Mike Hoeffel scored just before the halfway point of the period to bring the team within one goal at 3-2. With just over four minutes left in the second, Patrick White led a rush up the side of the rink, put a shot on net, got his own rebound and rifled the puck past UMD goalie Aaron Crandall for what appeared to be the game-tying goal. However, Nico Sacchetti was streaking in on the goaltender's weak side, and it appeared that he was hooked / held and he bumped into the goalie as White's shot went in the net. The referees saw the play differently, however, and not only waived off the Gopher goal but gave UMD a power play out of the deal.

Nearly immediately after the UMD power play started, the referees called a "make-up call" penalty on Duluth, but the intense momentum the Gophers were playing with had evaporated. Any residual of that momentum was extinguished when Mike Connolly scored his fourth goal of the game, one of the few "soft" goals that I've seen Patterson give up all year, on a wrist shot from the top of the circle. Patterson had a clear view of the shooter and the puck, but the biscuit found the twine and gave UMD another two goal lead going into the third period.

To their credit, Minnesota did not give up following the White non-goal and the Connolly insurance-marker. Cade Fairchild scored his second goal of the weekend in his hometown with just over ten minutes remaining in the period to draw the Gophers again within one. UMD had a goal disallowed on a similar play to the Sacchetti no-goal, but the referees did not call a penalty on the Bulldogs on this one. Just minutes later, Travis Oleksuk rang the crossbar with a shot that bounced back under Kent Patterson. Patterson tried to fall on the puck, but ended up putting it into his own net, and just like that UMD had another two goal lead. The Gophers pulled their goalie down two and actually scored right away, with Nate Condon ringing one off the post and in. However, Mike Connolly put the puck into the Gophers' empty net, and his fifth goal of the game sealed it for the Bulldogs, salvaging a 6-4 victory.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Player of the Game: Patrick White

This award is by default awarded to a Gopher. The best Gopher on Saturday was Patrick White. He should have been credited with a goal on the Sacchetti-interference call, but he played an effective game for 60 minutes.

However, this game was all about Mike Connolly. Five goals (one empty-netter) was more than the Gophers scored all game. Although the game may have turned out differently had White's goal counted, there's no question that Mike Connolly was the player of the game.


The Gophers needed at least two points this weekend. They got one.

Now they'll need to steal a game or two against equally tough competition. The Gophers take on WCHA-leading Denver this weekend, then go to Madison to face the Badgers. The Gophers very probably need to go better than 2-2 in those tough games. Then follows Michigan Tech at home and Bemidji away, games that the Gophers all but need to sweep to stay in contention for the NCAA tournament.

It's a tough road ahead, but this team has shown the ability to play with and beat quality opponents. If they can find some consistency, this team still has a chance to make some noise going into March. The turnaround HAS to start Friday against Denver, though. Three points in that series will be the minimum requirement for this Gopher squad.

Let's see if they can make something happen down the stretch.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Seawolves Stifle Minnesota Offense, Shut Out Gophers 1-0 to Earn Split in Minneapolis

Coming off a dominating win on Friday night, the Gophers must have expected a cakewalk to another win on Saturday and a much needed sweep against the University of Alaska-Anchorage. The Seawolves, though, weren't buying into the Gophers domineering plans. A sound defensive strategy allowed the Seawolves to limit quality Gopher scoring chances, and UAA scored the only goal it would need in the third period to skate to a victory at Mariucci Arena.

Saturday: 1-0 Gopher Loss

The Gophers won Friday night's tilt 5-1 on the strength of high-octane offense. Anchorage attempted to play the game the way the Gophers wanted them to, and the Gophers succeeded in skating circles around the Seawolves.

So, as all good coaches are wont to do, Alaska-Anchorage bench boss Dave Shyiak decided to change his scheme up in order to confuse the Minnesota attack. Right from the beginning of the game the strategy change was evident. Minnesota continued to attack the Anchorage zone, but Alaska was willing to concede the center of the ice, playing 3-4 men back at all times and allowing Minnesota to take shots from the low-percentage areas of the ice. The difference was made all the more clear in the game statistics, as Minnesota only managed 30 shots on net on Saturday where they fired a whopping 48 shots the night before.

Despite the defensive effort, the Gophers had several grade-A chances, including at least one breakaway and several shots from the mid-slot. Unsung UAA goaltender Chris Kamal was up to the challenge, though, stopping all 30 shots to record the first shutout of his career. Kamal's counterpart on the other side of the rink, the much more highly regarded Kent Patterson, also played his usual tremendous game, limiting the Seawolves to just one goal: a Matt Bailey marker just 1:18 into the third on a partially tipped shot. That goal combined with Alaska-Anchorage's steady defense was all she wrote for the Gophers, who could not crack Kamal and suffered a costly defeat at home to a middling Seawolf team.

The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Star of the Game Award - Kent Patterson

Is there a better player in the Maroon and Gold right now than Patterson? The junior netminder sports a .920 save percentage and a 2.41 GAA. Sadly, the Gophers needed him to be better than one goal against versus Alaska-Anchorage, but if your goalie allows only one goal you had better win the game. Patterson has given this consistently inconsistent Gopher team a chance to win games night in and night out, and once more he kept the team in it by shoving aside shot after shot. If only this team can find some of the scoring touch they had in the first half of the season, they could be dangerous come playoff time.


...that is, if they MAKE the playoffs. Each loss the Gophers tack on to their record is another nail in the NCAA coffin. With tough series coming up (@UMD, vs. DU, @UW the next three weekends) the Gophers need AT LEAST three wins in those six games to put themselves in decent shape for the big dance. What's more, this team could be playing for their coach, who has not made the NCAA tournament since 2007-2008. At Minnesota, the school with the most NCAA tournament appearances of all time, missing the cut three years in a row is not acceptable. Nor should it be. With all the advantages this program has, the Gophers should make a 16 team NCAA field eight or nine out of every 10 years.

Mr. Lucia has his work cut out for him if he wants to keep his job, and that is becoming a taller and taller order as the season winds to a close. The Gophers travel to Duluth to take on the third-place UMD Bulldogs, in a series that is always hotly contested. The Bulldogs feature three super-skilled players in Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine, and on paper should give the Gophers a run for their money. However, one area in which Minnesota has the advantage over Duluth is between the pipes. I cannot say it enough: Kent Patterson is the CLEAR MVP of this Gopher squad, and he'll need to continue to be a brick wall in goal for Minnesota if the Maroon and Gold can pull out a couple wins next weekend. The matchup to watch is the Connollys and Fontaine versus Kent Patterson - I have a feeling that whichever team wins that battle is going to win the game.

The Gophers really could use a sweep in Duluth, so let's see if the team that took three points from the Bulldogs shows up. If it does, Minnesota could be in for lots of points on the weekend and gaining ground in the WCHA standings. If, however, the team that was beat by Anchorage shows up next weekend, it could be another long offseason in the Twin Cities for Gopher hockey fans like yours truly.

As always, GO GOPHERS!