Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gophers All Over Seawolves, Beat UAA 5-1 to Gain Ground in WCHA Race

The Gophers (10-9-3 overall, 7-7-2 WCHA) took to the ice last night against the Seawolves of the University of Alaska-Anchorage (7-12-3 overall, 6-10-2 WCHA), in a game that Minnesota would desperately like to win to begin a second-half charge into the playoffs. The Gophers are a more talented team than UAA, but as we've seen this season Minnesota can lose to teams that are supposedly worse than they are. Would the Maroon and Gold play with intensity and beat an inferior team, or would they lay another egg and make the game more difficult for themselves?

Friday: 5-1 Gopher Win

The Gophers certainly came out firing, outshooting the Seawolves 19-10 in the first period with many shots coming in the scoring areas. The advantage in shooting chances was reflected on the scoreboard early on, as Nate Condon fired a wrister past UAA goalie Rob Gunderson at 4:30 of the first period to give the Gophers an early 1-0 lead. Just a minute later, the Gophers connected on a 2-on-1 as Nick Larson found Tom Serratore who put the puck past Gunderson for a two goal Gopher lead. The Gophers kept the pressure on the Seawolves all period, but could not bulge the twine again in the period. Anchorage's Mitch Bruijsten, however, took advantage of a late power play chance and a Gopher lapse in defensive concentration to take a loose puck at the side of the net and score on a wrap-around to cut the Gopher lead to one, and both teams entered the locker rooms relatively happy. Anchorage had survived a Gopher onslaught to be down only one goal at the break, and the Gophers had netted two goals in the period.

The second period featured a quick UAA penalty, and the Gophers again took advantage of the chance to net another goal. Nick Larson's one-timed shot at the end of the power play again beat Gunderson to give Minnesota another two goal lead. The Gophers continued to dominate the play, holding most of the offensive-zone time and taking many more quality shots than Anchorage. The Gophers stretched their lead to 4-1 on a creative 3-on-2 play from Nick Bjugstad to Jake Hansen. Bjugstad gave Hansen a nifty pass through a defender's legs into the high slot, and Hansen one-time tapped it into the far corner of the goal. The only other action in the second period was a 5 minute major on UAA's Chris Crowell for a check from behind on Minnesota's Justin Holl at 17:34 of the period. The Gophers could not convert on the power play before the period expired, so the team went into the second intermission up 4-1.

It seemed like Minnesota took their collective feet off the gas in the third period, but they still outshot the Seawolves 17-8 and outscored UAA 1-0 in the period. The Gophers took a couple early penalties in the period and gave Anchorage a chance to get back into the game, but the oft-maligned Minnesota penalty kill stiffened and did not allow a goal. Just past the halfway point of the period, Minnesota's Aaron Ness got off the schnide and scored his first goal of the season, putting the Gophers up 5-1. Gopher goalie Kent Patterson shut down UAA the rest of the game, and Minnesota skated away with an important victory.

Gopher Player of the Game: Kent Patterson

Although the Gophers scored plenty of goals in this game, it was the steady play of the Minnesota goaltender that allowed the Maroon and Gold to claim an easy victory Friday night. Anchorage had plenty of decent scoring chances, but Patterson turned nearly all of them away. The junior netminder will be the Gophers' most important player the rest of the way, and if the team is going to make the NCAA tournament it will need to be on Patterson's broad shoulders. Patterson's 28 saves on 29 shots gives him the Player of the Game honors.

The Gophers look to continue rolling tonight against the same Alaska-Anchorage team tonight. At this point they need every win they can get, so another win over a beatable team is a must for this Gopher squad. If the Gophers can play another solid 60 minute game they should have a good chance of getting two big points.

I'll see you at the rink!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sioux Dominate Gophers 4-1; Loss Makes Road to NCAAs Tougher for Minnesota

After an emotional win Friday night against North Dakota, the Fighting Sioux came back strong Saturday, thoroughly dominating the Gophers in all facets of the game and winning by a 4-1 margin. Despite the fact that the Gophers scored the first goal of the game on a Mark Alt shot from the point, the team may have spent all its energy in Friday night's fisticuffs.

The Sioux limited Gopher chances, rarely if ever allowing Minnesota quality scoring opportunities. North Dakota, on the other hand, capitalized on their own chances, getting two powerplay goals on the night to power their side to victory.

The Gophers player of the game was clearly Kent Patterson, who turned back a ton of great Sioux chances and kept the Gophers in the game for his part.

More important than this single game, though, is the implications the loss had on Minnesota's chances of making the NCAA tournament. From everything I've seen, the Gophers need to get somewhere around 10 more wins on the season to make the big dance. Obviously, the tournament committee uses the Pairwise rankings (), but 10 more wins the rest of the season should vault the Gophers into the top 14 of the Pairwise. The problem is that the Gophers only have 14 more guaranteed games left on the schedule (six regular season series, at least two playoff games). And those games aren't cakewalks.

The Gophers have three series that, according to the records of the teams they're playing, should be "sweepable" - at home against UAA this weekend, at home against Michigan Tech, and away at Bemidji St. The three "tough" series for Minnesota have the Gophers at UMD, home against Denver and at Wisconsin. The way I see it, the Gophers need 9 points out of the "sweepable" series (that's something like 4-1-1 over those six games), which means they would need to get around 7 points in their other six tough games (somewhere around 3-2-1). Of course, this all assumes that the Gophers win their first round WCHA series and make it to the Final Five, where they have a chance to pick up some more victories.

Even those results sound like a tall task for the Gophers to accomplish. Any point the Gophers give up in the three series against the beatable teams is a point they'll need to make up against the tough teams, so they cannot afford to give up more than the three points I projected above.

The Gophers are in action this Friday and Saturday against Alaska-Anchorage. If they can weather the Seawolf onslaught and come out of this weekend with four valuable points, it will be a good start towards making their way into the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.

Go Gophers!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gophers Win Fierce Battle in Grand Forks, Beat Sioux 3-2 to Open Series

The start of the second half of the WCHA season is a tough one for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The schedule contains games home against Alaska-Anchorage, at Minnesota-Duluth, home against Denver and at Wisconsin. However, perhaps the biggest test of the season is this weekend, which pits the Gophers (9-8-3 Overall, 6-6-2 WCHA) against the #2-ranked North Dakota Fighting Sioux (16-5-0 Overall, 11-3-2 WCHA).

North Dakota always stakes its reputation on physical play, and its lineup is chock full of upperclassmen. The Sioux's top line of Evan Trupp, Brad Malone and Matt Frattin are all seniors, and the team has lots of firepower as Frattin's 20 goals leads the country in goal scoring. Although the Sioux return one of the top goalies in the WCHA last year in Brad Eidsness, they have gone with the solid play of freshman Aaron Dell for most of the season. How would Dell handle his first action in the Gopher-Sioux rivalry?

Friday: 3-2 Gopher Win

The Gophers had a tough road ahead of them right from the get-go against the Sioux, as Minnesota is not known for playing physical and is relying on a bevvy of freshmen to carry the load. Minnesota would have to rely on good efforts from its veteran players and a great performance from goalie Kent Patterson (as always) in order to secure the victory.

Early on in the first period the Gophers actually looked like the better team. Minnesota was controlling the puck and playing at their own tempo, and the Gophers got out to an all-important 1-0 lead on a Mike Hoeffel wrister from the high slot at 11:22 of the period. The Gophers went on the power play several minutes later on a Brett Hextall roughing minor, and they did not take long to capitalize again. Jake Hansen pounced on a rebound to the weak side of Sioux goalie Aaron Dell, depositing it into the back of the net to give the Gophers a big 2-0 lead. Minnesota would hold that two goal lead into the first intermission, outshooting North Dakota 12-10 in the period and playing an all-around great first 20 minutes.

North Dakota took it to the Gophers in the second period, though, aided by Derek Shepherd and the officiating crew giving the Sioux a couple of power plays. The Sioux had three power plays in the period. The Gophers killed off the first Aaron Ness slashing call, but Brad Malone scored at 13:54 of the period on their second power play. North Dakota also received a power play a minute later at 14:57 on a rather weak Aaron Ness interference call, but the Gophers were able to kill that off, too.

The real story of the second period came at the very end. With time about to expire and Kevin Wehrs holding the puck in the Gopher corner, Brad Malone took four strides and delivered a bone-crunching hit to Wehrs' head-area, sending Wehrs a couple feet into the boards and clearing both benches. Unbelievably, Derek Shepherd and crew did not call anything on the Malone hit, and somehow despite the fact that Chay Genoway instigated the benches-clearing brawl the Gophers were hit with the extra penalty at the end of the period.

With a 2-1 lead heading into the third, the Gophers needed desperately to hold on to the win. However, the Sioux had an early-period power play, and took advantage with Jason Gregoire getting the game-tying goal at 1:31 of the period. Just a couple minutes later Andrew Rodwell took a tripping penalty, and on the ensuing power play Nico Sacchetti jumped on a long rebound and his snapshot beat Dell and popped the water bottle in the goal, giving the Gophers back the lead. After this goal, the Sioux pressed hard for the final 15 minutes of the period, but the Gopher defense bent and did not break, with Kent Patterson making several important saves to secure the game and seal a 3-2 victory for the visiting Gophers.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

Third Star: Jake Hansen

Hansen played a solid game all around, contributing the team's second goal on a rebound chance as well as doing a good job on the backcheck and blocking some shots. I thought this was one of Hansen's best all-around games as a Gopher, and his steady, solid game gets him the third star of the game.

Second Star: Kent Patterson

Patterson again played a stellar game, stopping 35 of 37 shots en route to leading his Gophers to a needed victory. The Gopher defense did a better job than they have in many games this year, but Patterson still had to make many gigantic saves, including a North Dakota breakaway. With second goalie Alex Kangas now down for the year, Patterson needed to step up and put the team on his shoulders, and he did tonight. Patterson garners the number two star for his great performance.

First Star: Mike Hoeffel

Hoeffel scored the very important first goal of the game, and that goal gave the Gophers the attitude that they could win the game. Hoeffel played a major role in the game even after his opening goal, hustling every shift all game long and sacrificing his body by blocking numerous shots. Hoeffel's performance tonight is the type of performance the Gophers need from their upperclassmen if they are going to make a run into the NCAA tournament this spring. A great game gives Mike Hoeffel the number one star in the game.

The Gophers take on the Sioux again Saturday night at 7:00 central time. Can they complete the sweep? Stay tuned, and go Gophers!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Gopher Hockey Injury Update: Alex Kangas Undergoes Hip Surgery; Out for the Season

The Gophers learned of another tough loss this week, as senior netminder Alex Kangas underwent hip surgery for a torn labrum today and will miss the remainder of the season.

Although Kangas had been having a tough year this season, he will leave the Maroon and Gold as the career Save Percentage leader at .912%. Kangas will be most remembered for his stellar freshman season, when he took the goaltending reins from Jeff Frazee mid-season and led the team to their most recent NCAA birth. Perhaps the biggest games of that season were the Gophers' first round WCHA playoff series in Mankato against the Mavericks. The three games went into a total of five overtimes, and Alex Kangas was the only reason the team had a chance. His stellar goaltending led the Gophers all the way to the Final Five championship game.

Thanks for wearing the 'M' with pride, Alex. We'll miss you!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gophers Lose and Tie in Mariucci Classic; NCAA Hopes Slip Even Farther Away

The Gophers took on Union College and Ferris State last weekend, in their first games back after the University’s Christmas break. Gopher fans were hoping for more nice than naughty in the games launching the team into second half of the season, but the team left fans two big lumps of coal. Minnesota lost to Union and tied Ferris State in the annual Mariucci Classic, the traditional holiday tournament that marks the beginning of the second half of the season. For the first time in a long while, the team did not even contend for the championship of their own tournament, and as the losses pile up the road to the NCAA tournament gets tougher and tougher to make out.

Friday: 3-2 Gopher Loss

The Gophers took on Union College in Friday’s opening tilt without two of their top six forwards. Top line center Erik Haula and last year’s Minnesota Mr. Hockey Nick Bjugstad were out of the lineup. Both players were playing for their countries in the World Junior tournament being held in Buffalo this year, with Bjugstad donning the Red, White and Blue of the USA and Haula pulling on the Suomi sweater of Finland. Both players are excelling in the tournament, with Bjugstad scoring the game-winner against Haula’s Finnish squad in the preliminary rounds. The Gophers certainly would miss the two playmaking freshmen, as scoring had been the team’s strong suit throughout the first half and Union is known as a team that can stifle opposing offenses.

The Gophers were in action for the first time in three weeks, and from the look of their play it appeared that they had not been skating for a while longer than that. The team came out absolutely flat footed, with no life and no spark. Union, a top-15 team in the country playing with less than top-15 talent, looked comfortable letting the Gophers spin their wheels and played their solid defensive system, limiting the Gophers to shots from the perimeter of the zone.

The game was pretty listless throughout the first period, with Union getting the better of the chances and Gopher goalie Kent Patterson stopping everything he saw. However, a Union turnover deep in their own zone gave the Gophers a rare scoring chance, and Jacob Cepis deposited the chance from right in the slot through the legs of the Union goalie and into the back of the net. It looked as if Cepis actually fanned on the shot, but it was enough of a change-up to beat the goalie and give the Gophers a 1-0 lead late in the first period.

Cepis roared back just several minutes later, pushing the puck out of the Gopher defensive zone and beating the lone sluggish Union defensemen in the neutral zone to come flying in on the Union goalie all alone on a breakaway. Unfortunately for Cepis and the Gophers, the senior winger’s hard wrister clanged high off the post and stayed out of the net. However, the Gophers were (somewhat paradoxically) rewarded for a terrible period of hockey with a 1-0 lead going into the first intermission.

The teams played even-up for the first half of the second period, until Gopher forward Tom Serratore took a charging penalty at 8:48 of the period, which gave the nation's best power play (31.6% success rate) an opportunity that they didn't pass up. John Simpson absolutely sniped a wrist shot that beat Kent Patterson high on the glove side for his fourth goal of the season to tie the game up at one goal each. Not to be outdone, the Gophers took advantage of a power play opportunity of their own when Aaron Ness' great hands skills and quick thinking got the puck up to Jacob Cepis and Hoeffel on a 2-on-1 power play rush, which Hoeffel deposited into the back of the net to regain the lead. Right off the ensuing face off, though, Union attacked, and Josh Jooris poked the puck past Kent Patterson just 13 seconds after the Hoeffel goal to knot the game at two.

The rest of the second period concluded with little fanfare, and the teams were tied all throughout the third period as well. Both teams went into overtime with much to gain, but the Gophers had the most to lose. The Mariucci classic games were the last chance the Gophers had to beat non-conference opponents, crucial in the Pairwise rankings which ultimately determine the 16 team field for the NCAA tournament, which many view as the mark which coach Don Lucia must reach if he is to keep his job after the season. However, Union pressured early in the overtime, and scored on their second shot of the extra session, as Josh Jooris again scored to give Union the victory and force the Gophers into fighting for third place in their own tournament.

Gopher Player of the Game: Aaron Ness

Ness may not look like the best player on the ice whenever he's out there, but his decisions with the puck are as good as anyone's and he is the only defenseman on this Minnesota team that plays solid defense. He's a great passer and has terrific hand skills, and his breakout pass to Cepis and Hoeffel on the 2-on-1 to set up the Gophers' second goal showed off Ness' brain and his hands. Gopher goalie Kent Patterson also played well, but we've reached a point where he needs to play well every game if the Gophers are going to have a chance to win since the defense gives up so many point-blank opportunities. Ness gets the nod from me for his outstanding defensive play as well as his ability to start the breakout with snappy passes that are always tape to tape.

Saturday: 2-2 Tie

The Gophers needed a win against Ferris State on Saturday to bounce back from the gut-wrenching 3-2 defeat at the hands of Union College the night before. However, whether the team isn't putting in the high-level effort necessary to win college hockey games or whether the team just isn't that good, they were forced to settle for a tie that makes it very difficult for Minnesota to get back into the NCAA tournament picture.

Once again the Gophers gave up an early goal, on the power play no less, as Matthew Kirzinger scored his third goal of the season against the nation's fourth-worst penalty kill (74.4%) at 4:09 of the period. Minnesota got it back towards the end of the period when Jake Hansen tucked a rebound into the net off of a Seth Helgeson slapshot from the point, and the Gophers entered the first intermission tied at one goal each.

The second period was dominated by Ferris State, who held an 11-4 advantage in shots on goal during the middle frame. The Bulldogs also won the battle on the scoreboard, as Brett Wysopal scored five seconds after a Jay Barriball roughing minor expired to lead Ferris State back to a one goal advantage. The goal came at 16:28 of the period, and Ferris State would take their lead and the momentum into the visitor's locker room following the period.

Minnesota picked up their play in the third period, creating chances and drawing penalties and generally looking like the better team. However, they were down a goal and in need of some offense. They received it on the power play, as Jay Barriball scored his 11th goal of the year at 7:38 of the period on a deft tip off a Jake Hansen shot. While the goal leveled the game at two goals each, it seemed to solidify the defenses of both sides, and despite another Gopher power play no more goals were scored and the game went into overtime.

Both teams played decently in the extra session, with Minnesota again getting the better of the chances and having a four-to-one shots on goal lead, but the Gophers could not get the puck past Bulldog goalkeeper Pat Nagle and the game ended in a draw. The two teams were scheduled to have a shootout, with Mariucci's PA announcer broadcasting as such to the fans still in attendance, but coach Lucia canceled the event, later saying that there was "no point" to the exhibition. While many have speculated that Lucia was avoiding the shootout because he did not want the team to endure another loss, I don't see it as a big issue. The shootout was for third place in the tournament, and with shootouts not counting in the NCAA anyways (all games that are tied after a five minute overtime are counted as ties by the NCAA) there really was no point to the shootout. However, coach Lucia probably could have handled the situation more tactfully than he did, and once the shootout had been announced over the PA system the event should have continued.

Gopher Player of the Game: Kent Patterson

Patterson continues to be the MVP of this Gopher team, keeping Minnesota in nearly every game that he starts. Patterson made 27 saves on 29 shots Saturday, and with the porous Gopher defense ahead of him he needed to make plenty of high-leverage saves, too. Without Patterson's efforts the game surely would have been a loss for the Maroon and Gold, and that effort deserves the player of the game nod.


As mentioned several times above, the road to the NCAA tournament (and likely the road to Don Lucia saving his job) is getting murkier and murkier. The Gophers need to go on a tear in the second half a la Dave Hakstol's North Dakota ______'s in order to jump enough teams in the Pairwise to earn their way into the NCAA field. Now that the Mariucci Classic is behind them, that road HAS to start in Grand Forks, as the Gophers take on an always tough North Dakota squad that is ranked #2 in the nation following a blistering 16-5-2 start. The Gophers, perrenial hot starters and slow finishers, are due for a change of fortune, and I am on record believing that if this team can learn to play some team defense it can make some noise in the second half. The road begins in Grand Forks. The second half of the season starts now. If the Gophers come out hard and take 2+ points on the weekend we could be in good shape. However, 1 point or a UND sweep spells big trouble for Minnesota and head coach Lucia as they look to right the ship come playoff time. The puck drops at Ralph Engelstad Arena at 7:30 PM Friday night and 7:00 Saturday. Go Gophers!