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!