The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs won the NCAA Championship last season behind a talented first line attack and steady goaltending from then-Junior Kenny Reiter. The Minnesota Gophers missed the NCAA Tournament for the third season in a row displaying lackluster effort and uninspired play for long stretches in most of their games. For the Gophers, anyway, it appears that just one offseason can change things in a hurry.
Minnesota(4-0-0 Overall, 2-0-0 WCHA) opened conference play by stealing two victories and four conference points from a solid Minnesota-Duluth team (1-3-0 Overall, 0-2-0 WCHA), scoring late in regulation and overtime Friday night and hanging onto a lead on Saturday.
Friday 10/14/11: 5-4 (OT) Gopher Win
The Gophers played a near-flawless first period, dominating play and controlling the puck for long stretches of the opening frame. Minnesota got on the board first as Erik Haula put the puck past Bulldog netminder Kenny Reiter at 4:55 of the period. Haula's power play goal was already his fourth of the young season. The Gophers dominance on the puck resulted in several more power play chances in the period, including an extended 5-on-3 opportunity towards the middle of the first. At 11:32, right after the initial Bulldog penalty had expired but before their second penalty was up, Gopher freshman Kyle Rau lit the lamp on the type of goal that is becoming a Rau standard - right outside the crease, Rau found the puck on his stick and was able to put it past the goalie and into the net. There was no further scoring in the period, and the Gophers went into the locker room leading 2-0. Not a bad first period in WCHA play on the road against the defending NCAA champs. The shots on goal in the first period were 20-16 in favor of the Gophers.
The second period saw the Bulldogs dominate in much the same fashion that the Gophers did in the first. Caleb Herbert scored an absolute beauty of a goal to get the Bulldogs on the board at 5:12 of the second period. Herbert streaked down the right wing in a 2-on-2 situation, before dragging the puck past Gopher defenseman Ben Marshall and top-shelfing a backhander past Gopher goalie Kent Patterson. It was the first goal that Patterson had given up on the season, ending his shutout streak at 155:12. Ben Marshall is still looking for his jockstrap after that deke. The Gophers Zach Budish then took a checking from behind penalty that left the Gophers shorthanded for five minutes and saw him leave the game via the infraction. Just under two minutes after the Herbert goal and 18 seconds into the five minute power play, Travis Oleksuk beat Patterson on the man advantage to knot the game up at two goals apiece.
One minute after the Oleksuk goal, though, Duluth's Kyle McManus took his very own checking from behind penalty, evening up the sides at four on four. Just a couple minutes after that near the midway point of the game UMD's Joe Basaraba took an elbowing penalty, and one minute after that Kyle Rau netted another vintage Rau goal to put Minnesota back up 3-2. The teams traded several more penalties, and the play got back to four on four by the time Drew Olson pushed into the play and snapped a shot from the mid-slot past Patterson to tie the game up at three-three with just over three minutes left in the period. The second frame would end at that score, with the shots on goal all tied at 32 each.
The third period was exciting but uneventful, up until the end. Each team had one power play which they didn't convert on. The period dragged on with neither team really able to control the momentum, and it appeared the teams would head to overtime. However, at 18:00 of the third period UMD's Justin Crandall snuck right in front of the Gopher net and banged home a centering pass from David Grun to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the night at 4-3. The Gophers had their backs against the wall and pulled the goalie with just under 90 seconds remaining.
Then, for the first time in a long time, Minnesota got a bit of puck luck. With 44 seconds left in the game, Erik Haula took the puck behind the net and to the left of Bulldog keeper Reiter. Haula tried to feed a centering pass into the low slot, but the puck deflected off a Bulldog defender's skate and underneath Reiter to tie the game once again! The teams made it to overtime, and although the Bulldogs had the majority of the chances in the extra session (including a grade "A" opportunity off of a Nate Schmidt turnover right in front of Gopher goalie Kent Patterson), it was Minnesota's Nate Condon who found himself alone with the puck right outside the Bulldog crease. Condon batted the bouncing puck out of mid-air and into the back of the Duluth net to complete the improbable comeback and give the Gophers a big 5-4 road win to open up the WCHA season.
Saturday 10/15/11: 5-4 Gopher Win
Although Saturday's contest produced the same result as the Friday tilt, the game was played in nearly the opposite way. From the drop of the puck the Bulldogs were the better team Saturday night, scoring within the first minute when Travis Oleksuk fired a laser wrist shot in the upper glove-side corner of the net to beat Kent Patterson. The goal gave UMD a very early 1-0 lead, and the Bulldogs wouldn't hesitate to add to it. Two Gopher penalties in quick succession gave the Bulldogs a 5-on-3 power play opportunity at 6:48 of the first, and Duluth's Jack Connolly capitalized with a goal that beat Kent Patterson down low and on the backdoor. At this point, the Gophers were getting manhandled by all measures: the scoreboard read 2-0 and the shot count was getting out of hand. By the end of the period Duluth would amass an 18-4 advantage in shots on goal.
However, showing a resiliance unlike any we've seen from a Gopher hockey team in the past several seasons, Minnesota managed to claw its way back into the contest. The Gophers got a power play opportunity at 11:09 of the period when UMD's David Grun was sent off for charging. Just under one minute later at 12:05, Jake Hansen let a slapshot rip in the mid-slot off of a nice feed from behind the net by Nick Bjugstad. The shot beat Reiter, and the Gophers were down only two goals to one. At 16:19 the Gophers got a bit more of that elusive puck luck when a Nate Condon shot rose over the net and hit hard off the glass behind the Bulldog net. The carom came out in front of the cage where Bulldog defender Chris Casto attempted to corral the puck back to his keeper. Somehow, the puck squirted through Reiter's five-hole and nestled into the net, tying the game at two all.
The period ended with a 2-2 score, and although the shots were heavily in favor of UMD, the Gophers were able to even the score heading into the break. They wouldn't look back from there. Nick Bjugstad showed a flash his first round NHL draft choice potential at 1:10 of the second, as he danced around his defender at the blue line before deking out Kenny Reiter and top-shelfing the puck into the back of the net. Nate Condon scored his second goal of the night and third of the weekend when he beat Reiter through traffic on the powerplay at 12:10. The Gophers would take the next four penalties of the game between the end of the second period and the beginning of the third, but the Gopher PK was up to the task, and Kyle Rau scored a tip-in goal off a Nate Schmidt shot from the point on the very next Gopher power play to give Minnesota a commanding 5-2 lead midway through the final stanza.
The Bulldogs were not done yet, though. Caleb Herbert scored at 11:38 from right in front of Kent Patterson's crease, and J.T. Brown turned a bad Seth Helgeson turnover in the Gopher slot into a goal at 14:55. The two quick goals got Duluth back within one goal at 5-4, but Patterson was able to brush aside the stiff Bulldog charge and backstop the Maroon and Gold to a road sweep. Patterson made 46 saves in the game for the second straight night, and the shots on goal tally which was so close the night before (50-44 UMD) ended in a lopsided 50-16 in favor of Minnesota-Duluth.
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend
3. Nate Condon
Tough to give a guy that scores three goals on the weekend (including the overtime winner in Friday's contest) only the third star, but it was a good series to be a Gopher. As mentioned earlier, Condon was the hero in Friday night's game, scoring the winner in OT by batting the puck out of the air and into the net. Saturday, he scored the game-tying second goal off a deflection as well as the very important fourth goal on a snipe from the top of the circle. That goal came at a crucial point of the game and helped to give the Gophers that much needed separation that they could not get all of last season. Condon's three goal and one assist performance on the weekend earns him the number three star.
2. Kent Patterson
Patterson was brilliant as always, stopping 92 of 100 Bulldog shots over the weekend series. As this blog has posited before, Patterson is the most important player on the team. With a young defensive corps in front of him, Patterson will be relied upon to cover up for a few mistakes. He made one absolutely crucial stop off of a Nate Schmidt turnover in the slot in Friday night's overtime period. For his ability to gobble up pucks and limit rebound chances, Patterson earns a very deserving number two star.
1. Kyle Rau
Rau scored three powerplay goals this weekend. It's not so much the number of goals that he scored that earn him the number one star, though, but the manner in which he scored them. Rau is all of five foot seven, which makes him one of the smallest players on the team. However, here he is getting his nose dirty in the scoring areas and making plays near the net. He seems to be one of those guys that just knows where to be. There are some players that the puck just finds them in the scoring areas, and Rau is one of those players. On a team with not a lot of scoring returning from last year's squad, Rau will be called upon to light the lamp more than any freshman in the WCHA should. Rau's number one star this weekend is a vote of confidence from yours truly that he will be up to the task.
The Gophers battle Vermont next weekend, with games taking place Friday at 6:00 PM and Sunday at 1:00 PM at Mariucci Arena. Vermont has not yet played an official game, but they lost to the US Under 18 team last weekend in an exhibition contest 2-1. Look for goaltender Rob Madore to backstop the Catamounts in at least one of their games. This kid can be good, so if he gets rolling early he could be a force to be reckoned with. However, if the Gophers can put the puck into the net early, the talent of this Minnesota team could be too much for Vermont to handle.
Gophers start slowly and may even give up the first goal on Friday, but find their game and battle back to a 4-1 victory. Sunday afternoon's contest is a laugher, as Minnesota pummels Vermont 7-2 in front of a small home crowd. The team has a real opportunity to be 6-0 heading into their trip up to Anchorage. The Gophers need to take care of business against Vermont first, though. Go Gophers!