Monday, March 7, 2011

Late Bemidji Goal Limits Gophers to Tie; Gophers' NCAA Tournament Hopes on Life Support

With Friday's tie against Bemidji State, the Minnesota Gophers (15-12-6 Overall, 12-10-5 WCHA) clinched home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. However, Minnesota must feel like they let one get away in the first game of the series. The Gophers took a questionable penalty with 40 seconds remaining in the game, and Bemidji's Brad Hunt scored with just 19 seconds to go to tie the score at 3-3 and steal a point from the Maroon and Gold.

Friday: 3-3 Tie

Minnesota opened the first period strong, and the Gophers were all over Bemidji early. Just 94 seconds into the game, Minnesota senior forward Patrick White dug the puck out of the corner and attempted a centering pass to Nate Condon in front of the goal. The pass bounced off a Bemidji player in front of the net and deflected between Bemidji goaltender Dan Bakala's legs to give the Gophers an early 1-0 lead. Minnesota controlled the play for another several minutes, but after that it was all Bemidji for nearly the next two periods.

The Beavers started taking over the game by playing physical hockey. Bemidji hit the Gophers hard and hit them often. They got a goal at 5:58 from Matt Read, his 18th of the year, had a goal waived off around the 12 minute mark of the period, and got another puck into the Minnesota net at 12:28 on an Aaron McLeod rebound down low.

Bemidji continued to dominate the game physically in the second period, and it took a toll on the Gophers. Junior defenseman Aaron Ness was driven awkwardly into the end boards early in the period and came up favoring his back. Ness did not return to the game, and is likely out for at least Saturday's series finale. The injury imp again bit Minnesota as Taylor Matson took a knee-to-knee hit in the middle of the period and did not return to the game. He skated off the ice under his own power at the end of the period, but I would expect Matson to miss Saturday's game along with Ness. These two losses could be huge for Minnesota as it pushes towards the playoffs, more on that below.

The physical play eventually stung the Beavers as well. Bemidji took three penalties in the second period. Just past the ten-minute mark, while on the penalty kill already, the Beavers' Ian Lowe took a high sticking penalty giving the Gophers a short 5-on-3 opportunity. Minnesota capitalized as Gopher forward Nick Bjugstad beat Bakala 5-hole to tie the game at two goals each. After the Gopher goal, Bemidji continued to control the play for a few minutes, but it seemed like Minnesota started taking over the game towards the end of the period. The Gophers were getting good scoring chances and controlling the time of possession battle. Although no more goals were scored in the period, Minnesota had tied the game after a poor start and would be looking for the victory in the third period.

In the final stanza of regulation, Minnesota showed its class. The Gophers outshot the Beavers 11-6 in the period, limiting Bemidji's shots, scoring chances and time of possession throughout the period. Minnesota had a plethora of great scoring opportunities, but could not break the tie until the 16:20 mark when Nate Condon fired a pass from above the left circle into the low slot where Patrick White streaked in and redirected the sharp pass into the back of the net. White pumped his fists and let out an excited yell, as he knew that the goal was likely the game-winner.

Bemidji State, however, had other ideas. While the Gophers played smart defensive hockey after the White go-ahead goal, the Beavers got a chance when Nick Bjugstad took a hooking penalty with just 40 seconds left in the game. Bjugstad was attempting to lift a Bemidji player's stick from behind, and the Beaver's stick went flying as he was holding on to it very loosely. The referee, who would apologize to Bjugstad the next day for making a bad call, saw the stick flying in the air and called a penalty on the Gopher forward. The Beavers did not take long to capitalize on their chance, as Brad Hunt scored just his second goal of the season with 19 seconds remaining in the period to knot the game at three goals a piece and send the contest to a five-minute overtime.

The overtime was relatively uninteresting, with the teams mustering just one shot on goal each. After the game, Gopher players and head coach Don Lucia referred to the mood as somber. The team knows it has to win to continue its march to the NCAA tournament, and it cannot afford to give up victories this late in the season when they're in a position to win. However, the team faced early adversity and battled back to get that chance to win, and if they can continue to do that they'll fare well in the WCHA playoffs and beyond.

The "Kent Patterson" Star of the Game: Patrick White

White scored two goals, the first fluky goal off of a Bemidji skate, and the third go-ahead goal with the game winding down. One of the unsung heroes of the past six weekends for Minnesota, White is playing the best hockey he's played during his four year Gopher career. White has five goals and five assists on the season, but in his past ten games White has tallied four goals and four assists (and scored another goal in Duluth but it was waived off). With Patrick White providing some offensive punch, this Gopher team is a scoring threat with either of its top three lines on the ice. The Gophers have 11 players with five goals or more on the season. This depth is essential to Minnesota's recent resurgence, and if this team can have players like Patrick White scoring goals on a semi-consistent basis, look out for the Gophers come the postseason.

Conclusion: Injury Update

One thing this team will need to deal with is the loss of Aaron Ness and Taylor Matson. Both are key components to this team, and both will be missed for however long they are out. As of now, there is no word from the Gophers about the extent or severity of the injuries, but we can only hope that both players will be back in the first round of the playoffs at the earliest. Matson is a player that is important to this team in that he allows others to perform their roles better. Matson, the team's third line center, gives the Gophers three legitimate scoring lines and provides gritty defensive play on the penalty kill. Matson sits at ten goals on the season, proving that he can be a scoring threat in this league while playing in a role atypical to the "scorers" of the league - little power play time, often playing against the other team's top lines.

I feel that Ness will be especially missed. The best puck moving defenseman on the team, Ness also does a great job of quarterbacking the top power play unit that the Gophers have. Ness is an excellent passer, is a great skater, has great hands and exceptional vision on the ice. He is one of those guys that can see plays happening before anyone else on the ice can. His absence will also be felt simply due to the fact that someone will need to take his place in the lineup. Ness is definitely one of the best two defensemen on the team. With him out of the lineup, he'll have to be replaced with a freshman the likes of Justin Holl, Nate Schmidt or Jake Parenteau. Although these are all good players who have bright futures ahead of them, replacing the experience and veteran presence of someone like Aaron Ness with a freshman in the heat of a playoff race is not a winning proposition. This team will need both Ness and Matson if it is to go anywhere in the playoffs, so hopefully those guys will get well soon!

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