Sunday, March 27, 2011

Season Over for Gophers in Losses to Anchorage; Lucia's Contract Extended

As you may have gathered by my sullen silence since Saturday the 12th, the Gopher hockey team was swept at home by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The losses sent UAA to the WCHA Final Five and sent the Gophers packing, as Minnesota's Pairwise ranking was not high enough to advance into the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers' first loss to the Seawolves on Friday night was a comedy of errors. UAA got out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period on goals from Wiles in the last minute of the first, Portwood at 1:56 of the second and Alex Gellert shorthanded at 9:19 of the second. Minnesota finally showed some signs of life in the second half of the game, as Jake Hansen scored the Gophers' first goal of the game on a penalty shot at 12:12. The Gophers scored another goal just 16 seconds later, as Aaron Ness' slapper from the point beat Anchorage's Chris Kamal to get the Gophers back within one. The Gophers tied the game with just under ten minutes left in the third period as Kevin Wehrs skated through the entire Anchorage team and fired a slapshot past Kamal. 130 seconds later, though, the Seawolves put a puck past Kent Patterson on the power play, and Anchorage held that 4-3 lead all the way until the buzzer rang to signal the end of the game.

Having lost on Friday, the Gophers were in a win-or-go-home situation on Saturday, as one more loss would knock Minnesota out of the WCHA playoffs and out of contention for the NCAA tournament. This game was eerily reminiscent of the 1-0 UAA victory on January 29th. In that game, Anchorage played a stifling defensive system, capitalized on one Minnesota mistake and came away with a 1-0 win. Saturday's tilt featured that same Anchorage defense, and saw the Seawolves take advantage of Gopher mistakes in the third period to score on Patterson and win the game 2-0 to end Minnesota's season. Minnesota had quality chance after quality chance, but Chris Kamal made save after save. Anchorage finally got on the board at 2:32 of the third period, and with the Gophers pressing to score a goal Tommy Grant scored on a breakaway at 13:24 to seal the game and send the Seawolves to the WCHA Final Five.

With the two losses, the Gophers have now missed the WCHA Final Five two years in a row and the NCAA tournament three years in a row. In fact, the last time Minnesota made the Big Dance was in Alex Kangas' stellar freshman season in which the Gophers beat Mankato in two straight overtime games to advance to the Final Five. If that seems like an awful long time ago to you, you're not mistaken. Minnesota has never missed the Final Five two years in a row in the expanded WCHA era beginning with the inclusion of Minnesota State-Mankato in 1999-2000. The Gophers haven't missed the NCAA tourney three years in a row since the end of the Doug Woog era and Don Lucia's first season. This performance is unacceptable for Gopher Hockey.

However, U of M Athletic Director Joel Maturi saw fit to extend the contract of Head Coach Don Lucia for a couple more seasons. Lucia's contract would have expired at the end of the 2011-2012 season, and since having a coach going into the final year of a contract hinders recruiting Maturi decided to extend Lucia as opposed to letting him go.

Among the departing Gophers this season include seniors Jay Barriball, Mike Hoeffel, Jacob Cepis, Patrick White, Cade Fairchild, Kevin Wehrs and Alex Kangas, as well as junior Aaron Ness, who signed with the New York Islanders. Thank you to all of the departing Gophers - I appreciate everything you've done in your time with the Maroon and Gold!

Up next: a look ahead at the 2011-2012 version of the Gophers including the incoming freshman class, as well as a few reasons for Gopher fans to be hopeful coming out of one of the darkest periods in Gopher Hockey history.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Gopher Fan's "Who to Root For" Guide for College Hockey's Conference Playoffs

According to the Pairwise prognosticators at Gopher Puck Live, a Gopher sweep in this weekend's playoff series would go a long way towards an NCAA tournament at-large bid. If the Gophers win this series in two games, there's a good chance that they would not need any wins in the Final Five in order to make the big dance. However, if Alaska-Anchorage takes even one game in the series, the Gophers would need to make the Final Five and would likely need to advance to the Championship Game in order to advance to the NCAAs. If the Gophers sweep UAA this weekend and win Thursday evening in the Final Five, they are all but guaranteed a spot in the tourney.

With the Pairwise Rankings in mind, there are certain results that will help the Gopher cause towards making the NCAA tournament. Below is a guide to who to root for in the other big games / series this weekend in the WCHA, as well as a select few series with Pairwise implications around the country. If you're a Gopher fan, use this guide as you watch the results from around the nation:


UND vs MTU - Gopher fans should root for MTU, but I would be shocked if North Dakota isn't playing on Friday evening in St. Paul next weekend.

DU vs MSU-M - this is a HUGE series for the Gophers. Minnesota fans should be rooting for a DU sweep of Mankato. If the Pioneers sweep the Mavericks, MSU would be knocked out as a "Team Under Consideration" in the Pairwise rankings (all teams with an RPI of .500 or over). Since the Gophers went 0-2 against Mankato this year, that would raise Minnesota's TUC winning percentage and (as that is an important aspect in the Pairwise) would help the Gophers turn a couple comparisons in their quest to get into the top 15 in the PWR rankings.

UNO vs BSU - Gopher fans should root for as many Bemidji State wins as possible in this series. If Bemidji wins the series, they could return to the ranks of the Teams Under Consideration. Since Minnesota went 1-0-1 against Bemidji this season, adding that win and tie into the Gophers' TUC record would be helpful in the Pairwise.

UMD vs SCSU - The comparison between UMD and the Gophers is still in play, but the only way Minnesota turns that comparison is if UMD loses in their first round series. Gopher fans should root for a St. Cloud upset of UMD.

CC vs UW - This one is somewhat of a toss-up. Minnesota currently holds the comparison with both CC and UW, but CC is ahead of the Gophers and UW is significantly behind. From that perspective, a Wisconsin series win looks to be the best thing for Minnesota, but CC winning the series in three games probably wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, either.

Other Conferences

Merrimack vs Maine - Gopher fans want Merrimack to win the series, but Maine winning in three games would not be a terrible result. A Maine loss would help the Gophers turn the RPI and the comparison.

Ferris St vs Western Michigan - A Ferris State victory in this series would be big for the same reasons as the Merrimack / Maine series above. The only reason Western Michigan holds the comparison over the Gophers is the RPI, so any Western Michigan loss helps the Gophers climb back in that category.

Harvard vs Dartmouth - Gopher fans are rooting for Harvard (I know, difficult). Harvard is not very good this season so this may not be likely, but Harvard winning even one game would help the Gophers come back in the RPI category.

Vermont vs UNH - Vermont also is not very good this season, but if they can take out UNH in one or two games in this series it should help the Gophers.

Northeastern vs BU - this one is strange. The best result for the Gophers here is a Northeastern series victory, but in three games. The Boston U / Minnesota comparison is very close, and if Northeastern takes out BU Minnesota should leapfrog them in the Pairwise. However, if Northeastern sweeps BU, Northeastern will become a Team Under Consideration, and this would bolster UNH's TUC record in their comparison against the Gophers. This is a Thursday-Saturday series, and Northeastern already won the Thursday game. Minnesota fans should be rooting for a BU win Friday and a Northeastern win Saturday, with the next best result being a Northeastern win on Friday and the worst result being BU winning the next two games and advancing.

I hope this guide helps you as you scan the box scores from around the country. As always, though, the most important thing that Minnesota can do is win its own games. If Minnesota wins its next two games it's pretty likely that the Gophers are in the tourney. Take care of business, and let everything else fall into place. Go Gophers!

Gopher Hockey Playoff Preview: Minnesota vs Alaska-Anchorage

The Gophers (16-12-6 Overall, 13-10-5 WCHA) earned fifth place in the WCHA's regular season and will face off against the eighth seed University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves (14-17-3 overall, 12-14-2 WCHA) this weekend in a best-of-three series for the right to advance to the WCHA Final Five.

The Gophers have been hot lately, undefeated in their last seven games and have really played good hockey the last six weekends. Over their last 12 games, Minnesota has gone 6-3-3 and is scoring 3.6 goals per game while limiting opponents to only 2.4 goals per game. The key number for Minnesota is three - when the Gophers have scored 3 or more goals they 16-2-3 on the season, when they give up three or more goals they're only 5-9-3.

As hot as Minnesota has been, UAA is heating up itself. The Seawolves are coming off of a road sweep at Minnesota State-Mankato, and has won seven of their last 11 games. A perennial bottom-feeder in the WCHA, Anchorage has climbed up out of the cellar of the league with a solid team that has posted wins over good teams this year. UAA has wins over St. Cloud, CC (3 of them), Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska-Fairbanks and Nebraska-Omaha this season, so this team can jump up and beat anyone in the league.

Minnesota played Alaska-Anchorage twice this season at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, and the teams played to a split in the series. The Gophers won the first game handily, a 5-1 contest which saw Minnesota take advantage of their skill to bury the Seawolves. Minnesota scored two quick goals, and although Anchorage got back within one goal by the end of the period, another two quick Gopher goals in the second spelled an end to the Seawolf comeback bid.

Minnesota leveraged its speed and playmaking to dominate the game on the offensive end Friday night, and Anchorage clearly learned its lesson in the Saturday rubber match. Alaska won the second game of the series 1-0, content to play an entirely defensive game and jump on the few opportunities that the Gophers would give them. Despite giving up plenty of shots and scoring chances in the game, Anchorage did an effective job of clogging up passing and shooting lanes throughout the game, and rode an excellent Chris Kamal performance between the pipes and an early third period goal to come away with a 1-0 victory.

If Alaska-Anchorage is to contend in this first-round playoff series, it will need to follow a similar game plan. Try to limit the Gopher chances as much as possible, play a strong defensive game, and hope that Minnesota makes a mistake or two that the Seawolves can take advantage of.

The Gophers will need to rely on that offensive attack to dent the twine and get out to a lead. Minnesota will need to lean on quick skating and effective short passing to break the Anchorage trap and get quality scoring chances.

One "X factor" in this series is health. The Gophers lost puck-hauling defenseman Aaron Ness and third-line center Taylor Matson last weekend at Bemidji, and we have now learned that first-line center Erik Haula is questionable for this weekend's series after taking a slapshot to the knee in the Saturday Bemidji game. If the Gophers have to play without these players, look for Anchorage to play a little more aggressively and pounce on the mistakes that the less-experienced reserves will likely make.

The games start at 7:00 Friday and Saturday nights, with Sunday's game at 7:00 if necessary. Go Gophers!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Gophers Beat Beavers Early in Overtime; NCAA Hopes Get Shot in the Arm

Prior to Saturday night's game against Bemidji State, the Gophers had not won a regular season conference overtime game since November 4th, 2006. Make that March 5th, 2010. The Gophers battled back from an early 2-0 deficit to force overtime, and Nick Bjugstad scored his second goal of the game just 20 seconds into the extra session as the Gophers won to secure fifth place in the WCHA and extended their unbeaten streak to seven games in the process.

Saturday: 3-2 Gopher Win (in OT)

Bemidji State came out with what appeared to be a similar game plan as what they had the night before, playing a punishing physical game in their small rink. The Gophers seemed more ready for that style of play in Saturday's contest, focusing on quick breakout passes and getting the puck out of their own defensive zone. This seemed to work well for Minnesota, as the Gophers did a solid job of limiting Bemidji scoring chances all game long. However, Bemidji drew first blood by taking advantage of a Gopher turnover. Cade Fairchild tried to make a pass up center ice from behind his own net, but former Gopher Drew Fisher broke up the play, and in the ensuing scramble Jeff Jubinville scored his second goal of the season at 14:40 to give the Beavers a 1-0 lead, which they held until the end of the period.

Minnesota's skill took over in the second period, and the Gophers got the better of the throughout the majority of the middle frame. The Maroon and Gold outshot Bemidji State 16-11 in the second, and although the Gophers limited the Beaver chances in the period, the teams tied 1-1 on the scoreboard.

Bemidji's Aaron McLeod took advantage of another Gopher mistake when defenseman Nate Schmidt attempted to bank the puck off the end boards behind the net. Schmidt's clearing attempt ricocheted off a broken stick left behind Kent Patterson's goal right to McLeod in the slot. McLeod made a nifty move to beat Patterson and give the Beavers a solid 2-0 lead. However, the Gophers had plenty of comeback left in them. Just as a Nick Bjugstad penalty was coming to an end, Mark Alt led a breakout on the penalty kill out of the Gopher zone. Alt passed the puck up to captain Jay Barriball, who passed it back to Alt on breaking 2-on-1 rush. Beaver goalie Dan Bakala made the save, but Bjugstad, coming out of the box and rushing into the play, pounced on the juicy rebound and pushed it past Bakala to get the Gophers back within one. That is where the period would come to an end.

The Gophers entered the third period trailing by a goal, but absolutely dominated the play in the final frame. Minnesota outshot the Beavers 16-7 in the period, and controlled the puck throughout the entire period. However, seemingly every chance the Gophers got, Beaver goalie Dan Bakala was up to the challenge. The Gophers finally got a power play chance at 13:11 of the period, and Mike Hoeffel popped in a rebound opportunity right at the goal mouth at 14:41 to tie the game.

The Gophers had the best chances the rest of the way, but the game remained tied and headed into overtime for the second consecutive night. This time, though, Minnesota's offensive prowess would result in a goal and a win. Nick Bjugstad won the opening faceoff, and Bemidji would not control the puck in the entire overtime period. The Gophers got the puck into the Beaver zone, and after passing the puck around, Cade Fairchild hit Bjugstad with a snap pass in the mid-slot. Bjugstad deflected the puck on net, and the quick play caught Bakala unawares. The Beaver netminder got a pad on the shot, but not enough to stop the biscuit from trickling over the goal line and giving the Gophers a 3-2 overtime win.

The "Kent Patterson" Star of the Game: Nick Bjugstad

Bjugstad has really started to come on in the past several weeks. Saturday against Bemidji, Bjugstad was a man among boys. Bjugstad scored two goals Saturday, the first goal and the overtime winner, as well as winning one-on-one battles throughout the game and winning lots of faceoffs for the Gophers. Bjugstad is an important piece of this team, and his continued development is one of the biggest reasons this team is unbeaten in their last seven games. Bjugstad's two goals came just when the Gophers needed them, and he was the Gopher Star of the Game.


With a sweep over Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, Minnesota in all likelihood will have done enough to make the NCAA tournament. The key is sweeping that first round series. If the team does not sweep, it will likely need to win at least one game in the Final Five in order to make the big dance. This team has been playing really well recently, and with the way the Gophers dominated Anchorage this season, I expect two well contested Gopher victories next weekend.

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!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gophers Sweep Michigan Tech to All But Clinch Home Ice for WCHA Playoffs; Still Work to Do for NCAA Tourney

In a weekend where the Gophers absolutely could not drop a game, Minnesota (13-12-5 Overall, 10-10-4 WCHA) did not disappoint, winning consecutive 5-2 games against cellar-dwelling Michigan Tech (4-24-4 Overall, 2-20-2 WCHA) to move ahead of Wisconsin into fifth place in the WCHA and nearly clinch a top-6 spot in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

In order to secure a finish in the top-6, the Gophers need one point or a St. Cloud State University loss or tie. In order to clinch fifth place in the league, the Gophers need at least two points against Bemidji next weekend. That top-6 finish means that the Gophers will play at home in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, likely facing either UW, CC, UAA or SCSU at Mariucci arena in two weekends.

I'm not going to summarize the games last weekend in this blog post. At this point, the exercise seems mostly academic to me. The Gophers played a team that they were much better than in Michigan Tech, and Minnesota beat that team 5-2 both nights. At this point, this Gopher team has grown into a unit that we expect wins from against lesser opponents. The same could not be said some 5 weekends ago, but since the second half of the season started the Gophers have been on a tear. The boys in the Maroon and Gold are getting better with every game, coming together as a team to become one of the hottest teams in the country right now.

But all of that is relatively unimportant. The important thing is this: Minnesota needs to keep winning in order to make the NCAA tournament and have a shot at a National Title this season.

The Gophers, now 15-12-5 overall, sit tied for 19th in the Pairwise rankings. The top 16 teams make the tournament, but any team which wins its postseason conference tournaments and sits outside that top 16 can take a spot away from someone on the bubble. The winner of Atlantic Hockey will finish its season outside the top 16 in the PWR, which means that any team to make the tournament with an at-large bid must finish at worst in 15th place in the rankings.

Several projections provided by the Pairwise gurus at Gopher Puck Live indicate that it may be enough for Minnesota to sweep Bemidji State next weekend and the first round of the WCHA playoffs, and lose the first game of the Final Five to squeak into the NCAA tournament. As long as several other key games go Minnesota's way over the rest of the season, a scenario where the Gophers don't even make the Final Five semifinals COULD get the team into the NCAAs. Of course, every win from here on out gets Minnesota that much closer to the tourney, and any loss or tie along the way could mean that the team needs to win another game in order to make the tournament.

I think at this point we can say several things for sure:
-If the Gophers win the Final Five they will make the tournament via the WCHA's autobid (and they will likely have won enough games to jump up in the Pairwise in the process).
-If the Gophers sweep Bemidji, sweep the first round of the WCHA playoffs and lose in the Final Five championship game, it's very likely that they'll make the tournament.
-If the Gophers sweep Bemidji, sweep in the first round and win one game in the Final Five before losing in the semifinals, it's probably more likely than not that Minnesota is in the NCAA tournament.
-If the Gophers lose a game either against Bemidji or in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, they'll likely need to make the Final Five championship game in order to make the NCAA tournament, but they probably don't need to win the Final Five to make the NCAAs.
-If the Gophers don't make the Final Five, they are likely done for the season.

Given these scenarios and given the way the team has played recently, I like Minnesota's chances of making the NCAA tournament. At that point, I think the Gophers have enough firepower to compete with anyone in the country. However, the team needs to take care of business first, and the first stop is at the new BREC in Bemidji this weekend. Two wins would do Minnesota a world of good, both in terms of the Pairwise rankings and in terms of the team's confidence heading into the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Go get 'em!