Monday, October 31, 2011

Gophers Depart Alaska With Two Key WCHA Wins, Sit Atop League Standings

The Minnesota Gophers took their longest road trip of the season last weekend as they flew up to Alaska to take on the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. In a locale that has been surprisingly kind to the Minnesota over the past ten years, the Gophers did not disappoint, winning both games of the weekend series to jump into first place alone in the WCHA standings.

Friday 10/28/11: 5-0 Gopher Win

The Gophers opened their first period in Alaska rather slowly. Although Minnesota (7-1-0 Overall, 4-0-0 WCHA) took many more shots in the period and throughout the game than their Seawolf counterparts, Alaska-Anchorage, a team known for blocking shots and clogging up the passing and shooting lanes, kept the Gophers relatively at bay. The shots on goal for the period ended up 10-6 in favor of Minnesota, and only one of those shots - an Erik Haula attempt at 18:01 - made it into the net before the first 20 minutes of the game expired.

Minnesota took that slender 1-0 lead into the second period, and they were able to add to it just after the midway ponit of the game as Nick Bjugstad beat Anchorage goalie Chris Kamal at 11:46 of the period. The two goal lead was extended to three just a minute later as Mark Alt's shot from the point beat Kamal at 12:49. The period would end at 3-0 Minnesota, with Alt's goal serving as the all-important separation tally that the Gophers had been lacking for the past several years.

The third period was more of the same, as Minnesota would add early tallies from Justin Holl and Erik Haula (his second of the game) to put the game out of reach at 5-0. The Gophers got sloppy after that, allowing three consecutive Seawolf power plays, but the penalty killers and goalie Kent Patterson stood strong, and the Gophers finished off Friday's game with a 5-0 shutout.

Saturday 10/29/11: 3-1 Gopher Win

The Gophers came out on Saturday evening and dominated the Seawolves for the first 20 minutes of action. Minnesota outshot Alaska-Anchorage 20-4 in the first, but like Friday night the Maroon and Gold only was able to put one shot past Seawolf goalie Rob Gunderson. The Gopher goal came at 10:54 of the period on a nice tic-tac-toe passing play from freshman Kyle Rau to Nick Bjugstad behind the net, who one-timed it to Zac Budish camped out in front of the crease. Budish's shot snuck past Gunderson to get Minnesota on the board.

Minnesota started off the second period and quickly went down a man as Ben Marshall took an interference call at 3:02. However, Nate Condon (who is perhaps the fastest player on the Gophers' squad) broke away shorthanded when he split the Alaska defensemen. Condon finished his chance, roofing the puck past Gunderson to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead.

However, after the Condon goal the Seawolves started to gain the momentum back. UAA got back within one goal at 11:40 of the second period when Sam Mellor scored on the power play. The Seawolves continued to pour shots on Gopher backstop Kent Patterson, but the senior netminder turned the rest of them away to get Minnesota into the locker room with a slim 2-1 lead. The shots in the second period favored Alaska-Anchorage 14-6 for a 26-20 overall Gopher lead.

The Seawolves came out firing in the third period as well, getting several quality chances against Patterson. However, Patterson once again stood on his head throughout the period and shut down Anchorage. Minnesota's Kyle Rau scored a gritty shorthanded empty-net goal in the last minute of the game to seal the victory for the Gophers. Shots on goal in the period were 9-5 Alaska-Anchorage for a 31-27 Minnesota lead after three frames.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend

3. Erik Haula - 2G-1A-3P

Haula maintained his lead in the national scoring race, tallying two goals and one assist (all in Friday's game) for three total points. Haula now has 17 points (7G, 10A) in just eight games, tops in the country. The importance of his production on the Gophers' second line cannot be understated. In previous years you would have needed to look a long way down the national scoring statistics to find a Gopher. This year, Minnesota has five players in the top 11 scorers in the country, and two of them are on the Gophers' second line: Erik Haula and Jake Hansen. The fact that Minnesota has three lines that can legitimately be considered a scoring threat is a big reason that the Gophers are currently in fifth place nationally in the poll. Haula's big performance in Friday's contest earns him this weekend's third star.

2. Nate Condon - 1G-0A-1P

Condon only had one point this weekend. However, his goal was the flashiest as well as the biggest goal of the series. The Gophers had dominated the first period but only had a one goal lead. Anchorage was coming on strong and had just gotten on the power play in the second period when Condon made a great individual effort and scored on a shorthanded breakaway to get the Gophers some breathing room. Condon's well timed goal earns him this weekend's second star.

1. Kent Patterson - 1 Goal Against, 48 Saves on 49 Total Shots .980 SV%

Patterson is this team's best player. He's as rock solid as it comes between the pipes, and his shutout on Friday brought him to four already on the season. The Gopher single season record for shutouts is five, set by Hobey Baker award winner Robb Stauber. Patterson could be off to an historic season between the pipes for Minnesota. His play gives Minnesota a chance to win every single night, and his stellar performances this weekend are the reason that he again is the number one star of the weekend.

Next Weekend: Gophers vs. Sioux!

The Gophers host the North Dakota Fighting Sioux (3-4-1 Overall, 1-3-0 WCHA) this weekend, in what is acknowledged by many as the best and most intense rivalry in college hockey. These two teams genuinely dislike each other, and I expect two close games riddled with penalties and probably containing a few fights. Expect the Gophers' outstanding power play to capitalize on any chances the Sioux give them should they get chippy and start taking penalties. Because of the nature of these games, I'll attempt to do a full preview of the series later this week.

Up Next: WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers Week 4

Who moved up? Who moved down? Stay tuned for the next installment of the WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers!

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