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.