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!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Week 3

After what can only be deemed as an interesting week in the WCHA, let's take a look at where the teams stack up in my Power Rankings and Tiers!

WCHA Results, Week 3:

Alaska-Anchorage - Loss, Loss @ Nebraska-Omaha
Bemidji State - Win, Win vs. Michigan Tech
Colorado College - Idle
Denver - Win, Win vs. Mankato
Michigan Tech - Loss, Loss @ Bemidji State
Minnesota - Win, Loss vs. Vermont
Minnesota-Duluth - Win, Tie @ Providence
Minnesota State - Loss, Loss @ Denver
Nebraska Omaha - Win, Win vs. Michigan Tech
North Dakota - Loss, Loss @ Wisconsin
St. Cloud State - Win, Win vs. New Hampshire
Wisconsin - Win, Win vs. North Dakota

Power Rankings:

1. Colorado College (No Change)
Last Ranking: #1
Last Week: Idle
2-0-0 Overall, 0-0-0 WCHA

Nothing new here. CC is a good team.

2. Denver University (No Change)
Last Ranking: #2
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. Minnesota State - Mankato
3-1-0 Overall, 2-0-0 WCHA

Denver is solid as a rock. DU and CC are the elite teams in the WCHA and they project to be two of the top four teams in the nation all season long.

3. Minnesota (No Change)
Last Ranking: #3
Last Week: Home Split vs. Vermont
5-1-0 Overall, 2-0-0 WCHA

The Gophers looked like two completely different teams this weekend, thrashing the Catamounts 6-0 Friday before losing 5-4 Sunday. Consistency will be key.

4. Nebraska-Omaha (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #6
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. Alaska-Anchorage
3-3-0 Overall, 2-0-0 WCHA

Omaha found its mojo last weekend in a sweep of UAA. The return of Alex Hudson to the Maverick lineup can only augur good things.

5. Minnesota-Duluth (No Change)
Last Ranking: #5
Last Week: Away Win & Tie vs. Providence
2-3-1 Overall, 0-2-0 WCHA

Duluth traveled East and took three points from a tough Providence squad. They'll be a solid WCHA team this season.

6. North Dakota (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #4
Last Week: Swept @ Wisconsin
2-3-1 Overall, 0-2-0 WCHA

North Dakota was swept by a seemingly down Wisconsin team last weekend. Could this be a down year for the Sioux, or is coach Dave Hakstol just preparing his squad for their annual second-half charge?

7. Bemidji State (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #8
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. Michigan Tech
3-3-0 Overall, 2-2-0 WCHA

The Beavers swept previously-hot Michigan Tech out of town last weekend. It appears that this Bemidji team could have a chance to sneak into the top six of the WCHA if a team above them falters.

8. Wisconsin (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #9
Last Week: Home Sweep vs. North Dakota
3-3-0 Overall, 2-2-0 WCHA

There are still serious questions to be raised about Bucky's goaltending and scoring offense, but they showed me that they can beat a good team last weekend.

9. Alaska-Anchorage (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #7
Last Week: Swept @ Nebraska-Omaha
3-2-1 Overall, 0-2-0 WCHA

The Seawolves had their momentum halted slightly in a road sweep at the hands of Nebraska-Omaha. They could heal quickly by taking at least two points at home against Minnesota this upcoming weekend.

10. St. Cloud State (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #11
Last Week: Sweep vs. New Hampshire
2-3-1 Overall, 0-0-0 WCHA

The Huskies ripped a New Hampshire team that was predicted to do well in the preseason. I'd like to see more from St. Cloud before moving them up farther in this ranking, though. A real WCHA test is first on the To-Do list, and they'll get it this week in a big rivalry series at North Dakota.

11. Michigan Tech (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #10
Last Week: Swept @ Bemidji State
4-2-0 Overall, 2-2-0 WCHA

I like what Mel Pearson has done so far in his limited time at Michigan Tech. However, it's a long climb out of the steep well that the Huskies were in prior to his arrival - the team only won four games all of last year. I think Tech is a team on the rise, but it might take a few years to get them to the middle of the pack.

12. Minnesota State - Mankato (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Last Week: Swept @ Denver
1-5-0 Overall, 0-2-0 WCHA

Not much to say here. Mankato put up a good fight against Denver in the Friday game despite playing with 18 skaters. This team is dinged up with injuries already. Let's hope they get healthy soon, or it could be a long season down in southern Minnesota.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Denver
Tier 2 - Minnesota
Tier 3 - North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 4 - no teams
Tier 5 - Alaska-Anchorage
Tier 6 - Wisconsin, Bemidji State
Tier 7 - Michigan Tech, St. Cloud State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

This Week

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Denver
Tier 2 - No Teams
Tier 3 - Minnesota
Tier 4 - Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota
Tier 5 - Bemidji State, Wisconsin
Tier 6 - Alaska-Anchorage, St. Cloud State
Tier 7 - Michigan Tech
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

Monday, October 24, 2011

Minnesota Blows Two-Goal Lead, Loses 5-4 to Vermont Catamounts

Prior to Sunday, the Minnesota Gophers had not given up a goal at home and had not lost a game anywhere. The Vermont Catamounts had only played one regular season game, a 6-0 drubbing on Friday at the hands of the aforementioned Gophers.

A day off must have done the Catamounts good.

After a full day to rest up on Saturday, Vermont (aided by a four-goal second period) stunned the Gophers by coming back from an early 3-1 deficit to hand Minnesota their first loss of the season.

Sunday 10/23/11: 5-4 Gopher Loss

Minnesota (5-1-0 Overall, 2-0-0 WCHA) came into Sunday's contest riding high - as mentioned above, the Gophers had won five games to begin the season, having scored 31 goals and having allowed only eight in those contests. The Gophers got off to a good start in the first period of Sunday's game, scoring the first goal of the match at 12:18 on a long shot by Justin Holl from the blue line. Minnesota dominated the period, outshooting Vermont 15-7 in the period despite being shorthanded for six of the frame's 20 minutes.

Although the penalties did not end up hurting the Gophers in the first period, they would become a refrain that would eventually take its toll on the Maroon and Gold. The Gophers' home shutout streak ended at 204:07 (4:07 of the second) as Vermont's Connor Brickley tied the game at one goal each. However, just 12 seconds later Jake Hansen tipped Erik Haula's pass into the top corner of the Vermont net to give the Gophers back their lead at 2-1. Just over a minute later, Nate Schmidt's slapshot from the blue line found its way through traffic and past Vermont goalie Rob Madore to get the Gophers a two goal lead. From there, though, the wheels fell off for Minnesota. Seth Ambroz took two penalties on the same play at 6:05 of the period, giving Vermont four minutes of power play time. The Gophers killed those penalties without allowing so much as one Vermont shot on goal, but somehow Vermont kept the momentum. Justin Holl took a holding penalty at 13:14, and just before their power play expired Connor Brickley scored his second goal of the game and second of the season to bring Vermont within one. Chris McCarthy scored from the low slot at 15:39, and on another power play Sebastian Stalberg scored at 18:07. All of a sudden, a two-goal second period lead had turned into a one-goal deficit for the Gophers as they headed into the locker room after the period expired.

The third period opened with a Gopher power play at 4:27. Despite a ton of quality scoring chances, Catamount goalie Rob Madore shut the door on Minnesota and prevented a tying goal from being scored. Just 40 seconds after the Gopher power play expired at 7:07, Sebastian Stalberg fired a rocket one-time wrist shot from the middle of the slot to beat the Gophers' Kent Patterson and give Vermont a 5-3 lead. Minnesota's Kyle Rau would score on the power play at 10:07 to get the Gophers back within one goal at 5-4, but Rob Madore would continue to stone the Gophers down the stretch as Vermont found a way to steal a victory from Minnesota on the wekeend.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Erik Haula: 0-2-2

Haula assisted on two goals on Sunday, and is now tied for the lead in the national points race with 5-9-14 in just six games. Haula centers the Gophers' second line, and his ability to be a puck-distributing pivot will be vital in getting his linemates (Jake Hansen and Sam Warning) involved in Minnesota's potent scoring attack.

2. Kyle Rau: 1-1-2

Rau scored the Gophers' fourth goal of the game at 10:07 of the third period. It got the Minnesota back in contention by narrowing the Catamount lead to one. Although the Gophers could not quite complete the comeback, Rau has often been the spark plug that jump starts this offense. I'm excited to see what he can do once the games start to get a little more intense.

1. Nate Schmidt: 1-2-3

Schmidt has been the Gophers' only consistently good defenseman the entire season, and he's racked up one goal and eight assists for nine total points in just six games to lead the nation's defensemen in scoring. Schmidt has a cannon of a shot and is great at running the power play. His presence in the Gopher lineup is a key to the season for Minnesota, and his first goal of the year earned him the Gophers' number one star on Sunday.

Coming Up Next: Gophers @ UAA

The Gophers travel up to Anchorage to face the Seawolves (3-2-1 Overall, 0-2-0 WCHA). The Seawolves opened up their WCHA season last weekend by being swept at Nebraska-Omaha. This series should be one of revenge for the Gophers, as Anchorage beat Minnesota twice to end their season last year in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Anchorage is much improved over the last several seasons, and any team traveling to Alaska has a tough battle from the get go, but I would expect three Gopher points out of next weekend.

Next Blog Post: Week 3 WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers

The next time you see this blog, I'll have an updated WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers for you! North Dakota swept at Wisconsin, St. Cloud State with a win and a tie against New Hampshire and Bemidji State sweeping Michigan Tech are sure to shake up the rankings! Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Patterson Pitches Another Shutout as Gophers Crush Catamounts 6-0

Kent Patterson did not have a shutout entering the season as the Gopher netminder. The senior goalie appears to be quickly making up for lost time.

Patterson made 17 saves to record his third shutout of the young season as the Gophers provided all the offense they needed to beat the Vermont Catamounts 6-0 on Friday night.

Friday 10/21/11: 6-0 Gopher Win

The first ever meeting between the Minnesota Gophers (5-0-0 Overall, 2-0-0 WCHA) and the Vermont Catamounts (0-1-0 Overall, 0-0-0 Hockey East) did not start or end well for the visitors. Vermont, predicted to be a lower division team in powerful Hockey East, needed their senior goalkeeper Rob Madore to be the best player on the ice to stand a chance against the high powered Gopher attack. Madore was beaten on the very first shot of the game, though, as Kyle Rau put the puck past the Catamount keeper at 44 seconds of the period to give the Gophers the early 1-0 lead. Rau scored the goal in his own typical fashion - with Minnesota controlling the puck in the offensive zone and forward Sam Warning heading off the ice for a change, Rau hustled from the bench and straight to the net where he received a pass from Jake Hansen and tucked the puck underneath Madore.

From there, the Gophers simply dominated play for the next 40 minutes of action. Minnesota got goals from Sam Warning (on a pretty pass by Erik Haula) at 3:37 of the first period, Nick Bjugstad on a shot that snuck through the five-hole of Madore at 15:26 of the first, Taylor Matson on a tip play set up by Nate Condon and Seth Helgeson at 7:20 of the second frame, Nick Bjugstad again on a beautiful two-on-one pass from Kyle Rau at 9:52 of the period, and Zach Budish on a pinpoint power play wrist shot (aided by nice work to keep the puck in by Seth Ambroz) at 13:53 of the second.

The third period saw a disinterested Gopher hockey team playing against an undermanned and frustrated Vermont squad. The period was chippy - a total of eight penalties were called in the frame and a number of skirmishes broke out. Neither team would score in the period, though, and Minnesota would skate away with an important early non-conference victory.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Nick Bjugstad - 2-0-2

Bjugstad scored two goals in Friday's tilt versus the Catamounts. Minnesota is going to need him to be their go-to goal scorer this season if they are going to continue to nurse aspirations of greatness at the end of the year. A well-deserved number three star for Nick Bjugstad.

2. Kent Patterson - 17 Saves, 0 GA

Patterson wasn't tested greatly by Vermont in the game, but he saved all 17 shots he faced. Patterson is another key cog in this Gopher team, as one of the only weaknesses displayed thus far by Minnesota is its young D-corps. They will make mistakes this year as player like Ben Marshall, Justin Holl and Mark Alt continue to adjust to the WCHA's steep learning curve. Patterson's calming, solid presence between the pipes will be the difference between winning and losing a lot of games this season. Even though the game was not in doubt, a shutout is a shutout and Kent Patterson's third shutout of the year nets him the second star of the game.

1. Kyle Rau - 1-1-2

Everyone around Minnesota Gopher hockey was excited for Kyle Rau to put on the "M". I think it would be difficult to argue that ANYONE believed he'd make this big of an impact this soon. Rau is playing like he's a seasoned WCHA veteran, already tallying five goals and two assists in just five games. Rau has a nose for the net and has that "it" factor that cannot be taught: he is a goal scorer. Some players may not have the best skills, but they've got that intangible ability to put the puck in the net - Johnny Pohl immediately comes to mind as a guy that didn't look all that great on the ice but could flat out score. Kyle Rau already appears to be one of those players. He's a smart player with an innate ability to know where to be on the ice, and good things seem to happen when he's around.

Enough gushing, though - Rau scored the all-important first goal of the game and added a pretty assist on one of Bjugstad's tallies. He was the most noticeable Gopher on the ice and his goal scoring is a huge reason why I am so optimistic about Minnesota's chances this season. A great performance all around earns Kyle Rau my number one star.

Minnesota's Next Action: versus Vermont Sunday, 1PM

The Gophers take on Vermont again on Sunday the 23rd of October. The puck drops at 1:00 PM. Although many prognosticators would view this game as unimportant, when looking ahead to the national tournament Sunday's game could be the most important game Minnesota plays for the rest of the regular season. Non-conference games are vital in the Pairwise rankings (the system the NCAA uses to pick the NCAA tournament field), and with the Vermont game being potentially the last game Minnesota plays against Hockey East, winning on Sunday would be a huge step in winning a lot of comparisons against good Hockey East teams like Boston College and Boston University later on in the season. Of course the Gophers can still make the NCAA tournament if they lose on Sunday, but a win would make Minnesota's road to the tournament that much clearer. I see a 5-1 Gopher victory, but I would not be surprised if Minnesota dents the twine more often than that. The Gophers have goal scorers this season, and they seem to have the drive to keep scoring goals until the game is definitely out of reach.

Believe in this team. Pride on Ice is BACK.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings and Tiers: Week 2

After two weeks of regular season play, let's take a look at my very own formulation of the WCHA power rankings and if any teams have moved up or down from their positions in the pre-season predictions.

1. Colorado College (No Change)
Preseason Rank: 1, 2-0-0 overall
Believe in the Schwartz! Jaden and Rylan have combined for 5 goals in just two games thus far. A pair of home wins against Bemidji got the Tigers off on the right foot.

2. Denver (No Change)
Preseason Rank: 2, 1-1-0 overall
DU beat a good BC team and lost to BU in their trip out east to open the season. No reason to doubt them thus far.

3. Minnesota (No Change)
Preseason Rank: 3, 4-0-0 overall
Don Lucia's crew has looked stellar thus far in blanking Sacred Heart and sweeping Duluth at Amsoil Arena. The Gophers have racked up 25 goals in four games played and leading the nation in power play. Kent Patterson looks to be a rock between the pipes.

4. North Dakota (UP 1)
Preseason Rank: 5, 2-1-1 overall
The Sioux beat Air Force and lost to BC in the first weekend of the season, while beating and tying Maine last weekend. Can they find someone to step up and score goals? Looks like Corban Knight and Danny Kristo will carry the load with a combined five goals and 13 points in four games. Where will the secondary scoring come from, though? Maybe Brock Nelson (2-2-4) will continue his solid play.

5. Minnesota-Duluth (UP 1)
Preseason Rank: 6, 1-3-0 overall
I know UMD was swept at home by Minnesota last weekend. But the games were close (both nights the Bulldogs lost 5-4), and Duluth split with a good Notre Dame team in their first weekend of action. UMD looked like a solid team in their losses with the Gophers, and good hockey will win out over the long run.

6. Nebraska-Omaha (DOWN 2)
Preseason Rank: 4, 1-3-0 overall
Omaha has only won one game thus far (Mercyhurst), while losing Colgate, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks. The Mavericks look to get leading scorer Alex Hudson back from injury soon.

7. Alaska-Anchorage (UP 3)
Preseason Rank: 10, 3-0-1 overall
The Seawolves are off to a hot start, and it appears they're building on the momentum they created at the end of last season. Anchorage tied Clarkson and beat St. Cloud State in their opening weekend, and beat Omaha and Mercyhurst in their most recent set of games. Are they on the verge of an upswing?

8. Bemidji State (UP 1)
Preseason Rank: 9, 1-3-0 overall
Bemidji split at Miami (OH) and were swept at Colorado College. To come out of that opening gauntlet 1-3-0 is not the worst start in the world, and this Serratore-coached team does a lot of things right.

9. Wisconsin (DOWN 2)
Preseason Rank: 7, 1-3-0 overall
Wisconsin split with Northern Michigan and were swept by Michigan Tech. The UP has not been kind to the Badgers this season. Bucky lost a lot of talent off their roster from last season, so we'll see whether or not the Badgers will be able to right the ship while leaning on a lot of young players, including starting a freshman in goal. However, all three of Wisconsin's losses have come in overtime, so maybe some bad luck has stung the team this early in the year.

10. Michigan Tech (UP 2)
Preseason Rank: 12, 4-0-0 overall
Tech has already won as many games this season as it did all of last year. New coach Mel Pearson must be doing something right up there in Houghton. The Huskies swept Wisconsin last weekend at home to open up their WCHA season and swept American International the weekend prior.

11. St. Cloud State (DOWN 3)
Preseason Rank: 8, 1-3-0 overall
St. Cloud has not been very good thus far, beating Alaska-Fairbanks while losing to Alaska-Anchorage and getting swept by Northern Michigan. The Huskies have looked like a team that will spend its time lurking in the basement of the WCHA so far. But hey, they should at least be better than Mankato...

12. Minnesota State (DOWN 1)
Preseason Rank: 11, 1-3-0 overall
MSU-Mankato hasn't done a whole lot right in their early season matchups. They don't score a lot of goals, and although their best player may be their goaltender they'll likely be outscored on most nights. It looks pretty clear that the Mavericks will be the worst team in the league this season. An early-season split with RPI and a sweep at the hands of UMass-Lowell don't give much encouragement for this team's future.

I like to think of the WCHA as having multiple tiers of teams. If you had asked me preseason what I thought of the relative strengths of teams, here's what I would have said:

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Denver
Tier 2 - no teams
Tier 3 - Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth
Tier 4 - no teams
Tier 5 - Wisconsin, St. Cloud State
Tier 6 - Bemidji State, Alaska-Anchorage
Tier 7 - Michigan Tech, Minnesota State

However, if you were to ask me today, here's what I'd have to say:

Tier 1 - Colorado College, Denver
Tier 2 - Minnesota
Tier 3 - North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha
Tier 4 - no teams
Tier 5 - Alaska-Anchorage
Tier 6 - Wisconsin, Bemidji State
Tier 7 - Michigan Tech, St. Cloud State
Tier 8 - Minnesota State

The way I see it right now, Minnesota is just underneath the CC/DU tier, Alaska-Anchorage moves up above UW and BSU, and St. Cloud moves down and Michigan Tech moves up to the space between UW/BSU and Mankato, and there's a special tier at the bottom for the non-Omaha Mavericks. I still think that the league has a pretty clear-cut top six / bottom six split. I would be very surprised if a team from outside my preseason top six rankings (CC, DU, Minnesota, UNO, North Dakota, UMD) did not earn home ice in the first round of the WCHA, but stranger things have happened.

Let's see where the power rankings and tiers shake out after this weekend's action!

Monday, October 17, 2011

How Sweep It Is: Visiting Gophers Twice Best Defending Champ Bulldogs by Identical 5-4 Scores

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.

Next Weekend

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!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gophers Rout Sacred Heart 9-0, 6-0 in Opening Weekend Sweep

Let me start by saying this: Sacred Heart is not a very good team. The Pioneers finished 11th out of 12 teams in Atlantic Hockey last season, and they're predicted to do the same this year.

However, the Gophers have had a tendency to play down to their competition over the last few years, so a combined 15-0 win over two games against an inferior opponent is a step in the right direction.

Minnesota (2-0-0 Overall) started quickly in Friday's game, as Kyle Rau scored his first Gopher goal on his first shift, just prior to the one minute mark of the game. Although the Gophers played sloppy hockey in the first period, they held onto a 1-0 lead going into the break and didn't look back. Four more goals in the second period and another four in the third meant a 9-0 triumph on Friday. Saturday's game played out in similar fashion, as the Gophers played uninspired first period hockey but dominated the second and third en route to a 6-0 victory.

One big key to the weekend was that plenty of the Gopher freshmen scored their first career goals. Rau, Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz and Ben Marshall each scored at least one goal on the weekend. Also impressive was the scoring depth that Minnesota displayed, getting 15 goals from ten different players (nine different forwards).

While the 15 goals for is an impressive total, zero goals against is an equally amazing feat. Kent Patterson is rock solid between the pipes for the Maroon and Gold, and as good as he was last season it's amazing that these two shutouts are the first of his career.

Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend

3. Nate Schmidt
Schmidt impressed both nights, tallying three assists on the weekend while providing consistent defense and poise throughout both contests. He also showed something that the Gophers haven't had on the blueline in an awful long time - a rocket of a slapshot. Schmidt should be a mainstay at the top of the power play this season for the Gophers. After watching him play this last weekend, you ask yourself this: where was he last season? Schmidt was seemingly "in the doghouse" last year. Schmidt was recruited by coach Mike Guentzel, so perhaps the sophomore is re-inspired this season with the return of the man who recruited him to the Gopher bench. Either way, he'll be an important part of the Gopher defense this season.

2. Sam Warning

With all the buzz about incoming freshmen Kyle Rau, Seth Ambroz and Ben Marshall, it was newcomer Sam Warning who stood out the most to me this weekend. Warning scored two goals and added two assists to lift the Gophers. Minnesota will need scoring from its freshman class this season, and Warning's presence in the scoring mix along with the aforementioned Rau, Ambroz and Marshall will be a boon to an offense that has swooned over the past several seasons.

1. Kent Patterson

When you toss back-to-back shutouts on the weekend, how could you not be the number one star? Although the Gophers won both games handily, each game was in doubt early on. Patterson had to make several high-leverage saves in the first period of each game to keep Sacred Heart off the board and give the Gophers a chance to build an insurmountable lead. Patterson faced 40 shots combined and stopped all of them, and for that he earns a well-deserved number one star.

Next Weekend

The Gophers head up to Duluth to take on the defending national champion University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in an early conference tilt. Duluth split at home with then #1 ranked Notre Dame in their first weekend of action. The Bulldogs lost a lot of talent from their championship team last season, but return lots of good players in Jack Connolly, J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk. Maybe the most important man on their team is goaltender Kenny Reiter. If the Gophers can solve Reiter early and quiet the fierce home crowd they might be able to steal a few points on the road. The mantra in the WCHA has always been "split on the road, sweep at home", so a two point weekend for Minnesota would be a good start to the conference season. Look for Coach Lucia to play a few of the older, more experienced players in these games as a harsh away environment could turn into a baptism by fire for the myriad Gopher freshmen. I expect a split.

Go Gophers!