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.
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.