Friday, March 11, 2011

Gopher Hockey Playoff Preview: Minnesota vs Alaska-Anchorage

The Gophers (16-12-6 Overall, 13-10-5 WCHA) earned fifth place in the WCHA's regular season and will face off against the eighth seed University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves (14-17-3 overall, 12-14-2 WCHA) this weekend in a best-of-three series for the right to advance to the WCHA Final Five.

The Gophers have been hot lately, undefeated in their last seven games and have really played good hockey the last six weekends. Over their last 12 games, Minnesota has gone 6-3-3 and is scoring 3.6 goals per game while limiting opponents to only 2.4 goals per game. The key number for Minnesota is three - when the Gophers have scored 3 or more goals they 16-2-3 on the season, when they give up three or more goals they're only 5-9-3.

As hot as Minnesota has been, UAA is heating up itself. The Seawolves are coming off of a road sweep at Minnesota State-Mankato, and has won seven of their last 11 games. A perennial bottom-feeder in the WCHA, Anchorage has climbed up out of the cellar of the league with a solid team that has posted wins over good teams this year. UAA has wins over St. Cloud, CC (3 of them), Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska-Fairbanks and Nebraska-Omaha this season, so this team can jump up and beat anyone in the league.

Minnesota played Alaska-Anchorage twice this season at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, and the teams played to a split in the series. The Gophers won the first game handily, a 5-1 contest which saw Minnesota take advantage of their skill to bury the Seawolves. Minnesota scored two quick goals, and although Anchorage got back within one goal by the end of the period, another two quick Gopher goals in the second spelled an end to the Seawolf comeback bid.

Minnesota leveraged its speed and playmaking to dominate the game on the offensive end Friday night, and Anchorage clearly learned its lesson in the Saturday rubber match. Alaska won the second game of the series 1-0, content to play an entirely defensive game and jump on the few opportunities that the Gophers would give them. Despite giving up plenty of shots and scoring chances in the game, Anchorage did an effective job of clogging up passing and shooting lanes throughout the game, and rode an excellent Chris Kamal performance between the pipes and an early third period goal to come away with a 1-0 victory.

If Alaska-Anchorage is to contend in this first-round playoff series, it will need to follow a similar game plan. Try to limit the Gopher chances as much as possible, play a strong defensive game, and hope that Minnesota makes a mistake or two that the Seawolves can take advantage of.

The Gophers will need to rely on that offensive attack to dent the twine and get out to a lead. Minnesota will need to lean on quick skating and effective short passing to break the Anchorage trap and get quality scoring chances.

One "X factor" in this series is health. The Gophers lost puck-hauling defenseman Aaron Ness and third-line center Taylor Matson last weekend at Bemidji, and we have now learned that first-line center Erik Haula is questionable for this weekend's series after taking a slapshot to the knee in the Saturday Bemidji game. If the Gophers have to play without these players, look for Anchorage to play a little more aggressively and pounce on the mistakes that the less-experienced reserves will likely make.

The games start at 7:00 Friday and Saturday nights, with Sunday's game at 7:00 if necessary. Go Gophers!

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