Tuesday, November 22, 2011

St. Cloud Bests Minnesota Friday, but Gophers Dominate Saturday to Earn Split

Although Minnesota and St. Cloud State have not been playing each other for as long as some of the Gophers' other rivals, the two teams nonetheless have one of the more interesting histories in all of college hockey. The Huskies' first coach was none other than legendary Gopher and Miracle On Ice coach Herb Brooks. Brooks was instrumental in getting the Husky program off the ground, and in the years since he's left the program St. Cloud has certainly turned into one of the better college hockey schools in the country. SCSU has produced multiple NHL players and although they haven't had much success thus far in the NCAA tournament it seems like only a matter of time before the Huskies under current head coach (and former Gopher assistant) Bob Motzko make a run in the big dance.

This weekend, though, the teams looked much more like equals and less like older and younger brother, as both the Gophers and the Huskies won in their home arenas to come away with a weekend split.

Friday 11/18/11: 4-3 Gopher Loss

Minnesota traveled up I-94 to battle the Huskies in their barn on Friday night. The nearly 6,000 fans at the National Hockey Center were rabid (as always), and wanted nothing more than to see their squad take down the number-one ranked Gophers. Minnesota, however, came out of the gates firing and quickly built a lead in the shots on goal statistic. It was St. Cloud that would get on the board first, though, as Ben Hanowski pounced on a Gopher turnover and slid a puck past Gopher goalie Kent Patterson. Later in the period, the Huskies would take two penalties 1:34 apart, giving Minnesota an abbreviated two-man advantage. Although the Gophers did not convert on the 26 seconds of 5-on-3, Minnesota's Nick Bjugstad scored on the power play at 11:13, with assists coming from Jake Hansen and Nate Schmidt. The goal tied up the game, but the Huskies would re-take the lead before the period expired as Cam Reid scored on a St. Cloud power play. Although the shots (17-7) and the play favored Minnesota in the period, St. Cloud took advantage of their scoring chances and held the lead as the teams headed into the locker room.

St. Cloud taking advantage of their scoring chances would be a theme in the second period. Although Minnesota again outshot the Huskies (11-6 in the second) it was St. Cloud that scored twice in the middle frame to increase their lead to 4-1. The goals came early, from Nic Dowd on a rebound chance at 4:35 and Jared Festler on a backdoor play on the man advantage at 7:12. The Gophers attempted to respond, but Husky goalie Ryan Faragher was outstanding, limiting rebounds and keeping the Gophers bottled up.

A frustrated Minnesota team left the ice after the second period, and a determined one took the ice to start the third. Faragher, however, was up to the task - for the first fifteen minutes of the last stanza, anyways. At 14:59, fourth-line sparkplug Tom Serratore tipped a Ben Marshall shot from the point past Faragher and gave the Gophers new life. Less than two minutes later at 16:52, Kyle Rau tapped a loose puck past Faragher to get the Gophers within one goal at 4-3. Although the team fought valiantly down to the final seconds, Minnesota could not squeak another one past Faragher. As the horn sounded the Huskies embraced their goaltender for leading the team to a 4-3 victory.

Saturday 11/19/11: 5-0 Gopher Victory

Minnesota's coaching staff must have had some good messages for the team following Friday night's game, because the Gophers looked like a team that would not lose on Saturday. The Gophers played a complete game Saturday, and although Nick Bjugstad was the offensive star of the game it was Kent Patterson that would steal the show.

The Gophers started the game playing a cagey style, not entirely sure what to expect from St. Cloud. The Huskies were awarded an early power play, but good penalty killing and a penalty of their own late into the power play got the Gophers off the hook. Sophomore Nick Bjugstad put the first goal on the board for Minnesota, as he roofed a Zach Budish pass at 8:13 of the period. Jake Hansen made it a 2-0 lead for the Gophers just 44 seconds later at 8:57, beating Faragher five-hole on an Erik Haula pass.

2-0 is how the period would finish, and Minnesota would not look back the rest of the game. Kyle Rau and Erik Haula hit the post in the second period, and early in the third the Gophers put the final nails in the Husky coffin with two nearly-identical power play goals from Nick Bjugstad sandwiching a Mark Alt goal from the point. The three goals came between 3:11 and 5:42 of the period, and from that point on it was all about Kent Patterson. The Gopher netminder has been having one of the most storied seasons in team history, and as the final horn sounded on his sixth shutout of the season players mobbed the senior and fans gave Patterson a standing ovation. Patterson's six shutouts on the year are a new Gopher record, breaking Hobey Baker winner Robb Stauber's team record of five set in the 1987-1988 season. What makes Patterson's feat all the more remarkable is that he's recorded six shutouts in just fourteen games! If he continues playing at anywhere near his current production, All-American and Hobey Baker honors are not out of the question.

Congratulations to Kent and the Gophers, who are still atop the WCHA with 16 points in just 10 WCHA games. One thing for fans to remember about this Gopher run is that seven of their first ten league games came on the road. Definitely an impressive start to the season.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend

Since I'm a little late to the party on this week's Three Gopher Stars, I'm going to keep it short and simple.

3. Nate Schmidt: 0G-3A-3P

Schmidt set up Bjugstad on nearly identical power play goals on Saturday night. The Schmidt-to-Bjugstad combination is one we might be seeing a lot on the power play in the future.

2. Tom Serratore: 1G-0A-1P

If this was just a Friday night contest, Serratore would get the number one star. In fact, even if he hadn't scored on Friday he was still the Gophers' best player that night. Serratore brings a unique blend of hard play, hard hits and a little offensive mojo to the team. It's no wonder the Gopher fourth line keeps up with the first lines of good teams.

1. Nick Bjugstad: 4G-1A-5P

Bjugstad recorded his first hat-trick on Saturday night, racking up three goals (two on one-time power play shots) to power the Gophers to a 5-0 victory. The nation's leading scorer is on an unbelievable pace, and Hobey Baker rumblings are not out of the question for this young man if he keeps it up. Expect him to be wearing a Florida Panthers uniform at this time next season - there's virtually zero chance he'll return to the Gophers next year.

Next Weekend: @ Michigan State

The Gophers travel to East Lansing to take on the 7-5-0 Michigan State Spartans. Sparty cracked the polls this week, edging to number 20. Michigan State is no pushover, holding victories over good Ohio State, Western Michigan and Northern Michigan squads. This should be another good barometer series for the Gophers - can they sustain their success on the road against a good opponent? We'll find out - the puck drops at 7:05 ET (6:05 CT) on both Friday and Saturday evening.

Until then, have a wonderful Thanksgiving! I'm thankful for this edition of the Gophers - finally something to be excited about! Go Gophers!

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