Sunday, October 7, 2012

2012-2013 WCHA Preseason Predictions

With the Gophers having played in their first exhibition game of the season, I figured it's probably time to take a stab at predicting the WCHA standings for the 2012-2013 season. Here we go:

1. Minnesota
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 1st place, 28-14-1 Overall, lost in NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal)

Key Losses: G Kent Patterson, F Taylor Matson, F Jake Hansen

Key Returners: F Nick Bjugstad, F Erik Haula, F Kyle Rau, D Nate Schmidt

The Gophers return their top four scorers from last year's Frozen Four squad, as well as all six defensemen and many other key players. The roster was bolstered by Nick Bjugstad's mid-summer decision to return to the team for his junior season, and the coaches' preseason WCHA player of the year tallied 25 goals and 17 assists in his dominant sophomore campaign. The Gophers are certainly the best team in the WCHA on paper, but their inexperienced goaltending tandem of Michael Shibrowski (junior) and Adam Wilcox (freshman) will be one of the team's few question marks heading into the season.

2. North Dakota
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 4th place, 26-13-3 Overall, won Final Five Championship, lost in NCAA 2nd Rd)

Key Losses: F Brock Nelson, F Mario Lamoureux, D Ben Blood, G Aaron Dell, G Brad Eidsness, Fighting Sioux nickname

Key Returners: F Danny Kristo, F Corban Knight, F Rocco Grimaldi, D Andrew MacWilliam

North Dakota was a surprise #1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season, after enduring an injury-plagued season in which they lost their star incoming freshman forward Rocco Grimaldi after playing only four games. Grimaldi, the 5'6" scoring machine, will be key to North Dakota's success this year, alongside senior forward Danny Kristo (19-26-45). North Dakota is a team, like the Gophers, that features a pair of brand new goalies in freshman Zane Gothberg and junior Clarke Saunders. Saunders is a transfer from Alabama-Huntsville, so he'll likely have the edge as opening day goalie.

3. Denver
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 3rd place, 25-14-4 Overall, lost to Ferris State in NCAA 1st Rd)

Key Losses: F Jason Zucker, F Drew Shore, F Luke Salazar

Key Returners: F Nick Shore, F Shawn Ostrow, D Joey LaLeggia, G Sam Brittain, G Juho Olkinuora

Denver lost a lot after last season, as Zucker and Drew Shore scored a combined 44 goals and 99 points between them. However, they return 41 point scorer Nick Shore, along with WCHA freshman of the year Joey LaLeggia. They also return their dynamite goaltending duo of Brittain and Olkinuora, which should be the best goaltending tanedm in the league this season.

4. St. Cloud State
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 6th place, 17-17-5 Overall, lost in UND in WCHA Final Five 1st rd)

Key Losses: F Travis Novak, F David Eddy, F Jared Festler, F Cam Reid, G Mike Lee

Key Returners: F Drew LeBlanc, F Ben Hanowski, F Nic Dowd, D Nick Jensen, D Andrew Prochno, G Ryan Faragher

St. Cloud State had a rough season last year, losing Drew LeBlanc for the year and having several players leave the team mid-season. This year, however, should be different, as the Huskies return 23-goal scorer Ben Hanowski, along with the aforementioned LeBlanc and key defensemen Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno. St. Cloud also returns goaltender Ryan Faragher, who filled in for the injured Mike Lee admirably as a freshman last season.

5. Wisconsin
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 10th place, 17-18-2 Overall, lost to Denver in WCHA 1st Rd)

Key Losses: D Justin Schultz

Key Returners: F Mark Zengerle, F Michael Mersch, F Tyler Barnes, D John Ramage, G Joel Rumpel

Wisconsin had an uncharacteristically horrible year last season, as their pair of freshman goaltenders experienced lots of growing pains en route to a 10th place WCHA finish. The team should be much better this year, however, as the only real key contributor to leave was phenom defenseman Justin Schultz. Schultz' loss is huge, but another year of seasoning for goaltender Joel Rumpel, along with the returns of Zengerle, Mersch and Barnes should spell a top six finish for the Badgers.

6. Colorado College
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 5th place, 18-16-2 Overall, did not make WCHA Final Five or NCAA Tournament)

Key Losses: F Jaden Schwartz, F Nick Dineen, D Gabe Guentzel

Key Returners: F Rylan Schwartz, F Scott Winkler, F William Rapuzzi, F Alexander Krushelnyski, D Mike Boivin, G Joe Howe, G Josh Thorimbert

The Tigers lost their leading point-getter in Jaden Schwartz from last year's squad, but they bring back his older brother Rylan, as well as several other key forwards from last year's team. CC will need to find players to fill in for Jaden Schwartz, Nick Dineen and Gabe Guentzel, but they return lots of points as well as two solid goaltenders in Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert. Expect CC to be hosting a first round playoff series in Colorado Springs.

7. Minnesota State - Mankato
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 11th place, 12-24-2 Overall, did not make WCHA Final Five or NCAA Tournament)

Key Losses: F Michael Dorr, G Austin Lee

Key Returners: F Jean-Paul LaFontaine, F Matt Leitner, F Zach Lehrke, D Zach Palmquist, G Phil Cook

After a long dry spell, things are finally starting to look up for the Minnesota State Mavericks. The entirety of Mankato's great freshman class from last year returns this year, led by forwards Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner and defenseman Zach Palmquist. Leitner, LaFontaine and Lehrke were the only Mavericks that scored more than 10 goals last season. This Mankato team has a really bright future, and if any of the teams above falter they could very well be hosting a home playoff series this season.

8. Nebraska-Omaha
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 7th place, 14-18-6 Overall, lost to St. Cloud State in WCHA first round)

Key Losses: F Terry Broadhurst, F Jayson Menga, F Alex Hudson

Key Returners: F Matt White, F Ryan Walters, D Bryce Aneloski, G Ryan Massa

Dean Blais' UNO team should be in the mix for home ice this season, as they return a couple of dynamic scorers in Matt White and Ryan Walters. Last season's team did not lack for scoring, though - it was goaltending woes that led them to a bottom half finish. With Ryan Massa returning between the pipes, the Mavericks might see enough consistency to vault them into the top half.

9. Minnesota-Duluth
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 2nd place, 25-10-6 Overall, lost in NCAA 2nd Rd)

Key Losses: F Jack Connolly, F Travis Oleksuk, F J.T. Brown, D Brady Lamb

Key Returners: F Caleb Herbert, F Mike Seidel

The Bulldogs won the NCAA Championship two years ago, but lost a lot last year and lose a lot going into this season, too. In Connolly, Oleksuk, Brown and Lamb, the Bulldogs lost 191 total points and 74 goals, more than half of the goals than they return from last year's squad (67). As Caleb Herbert goes, so will go the Bulldogs - the sophomore winger scored 14-19-33 last season as a freshman, and he'll take over the reins of this offense. One thing is for sure: he's got big shoes to fill.

10. Michigan Tech
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 8th place, 16-19-4 Overall, beat Colorado College in first round of WCHA playoffs, lost in first round of Final Five)

Key Losses: F Brett Olsen, F Jordan Baker, G Josh Robinson

Key Returners: F David Johnstone, F Ryan Furne, F Blake Pietila, D Steven Seigo

The middle of the WCHA is pretty good this year, and Michigan Tech is squarely in that tier. The Huskies return four of their top six scorers from last season, and they should be one of the teams in the middle of the conference that has a chance to get home ice in the last couple weekends of the season. Even the tenth place team shouldn't be too bad in this league this season.

11. Bemidji State
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 9th place, 17-18-3 Overall, lost to North Dakota in WCHA first round)

Key Losses: F Shea Walters, D Brad Hunt, G Dan Bakala

Key Returners: F Jordan George, F Aaron McLeod, F Ben Kinne

Bemidji State was not horrible last season, but this year could be a step back for the Beavers. Gone are 26 point scorers Shea Walters and Brad Hunt, but, more importantly, gone is senior goalie Dan Bakala. If Bemidji wants to move up in the standings in this incredibly deep WCHA, they'll need a big season from Jordan George (19-12-31 last season), and they'll need some of their younger players to step up. They should be on the road in the first round of the playoffs.

12. Alaska-Anchorage
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 12th place, 9-25-2 Overall, lost to Minnesota in WCHA first round)

Key Losses: F/D Curtis Leinweber, F Mitch Bruijsten

Key Returners: F Matt Bailey, G Chris Kamal, G Rob Gunderson

The cupboard appears to be pretty bare up in Anchorage. The Seawolves return their top scorer from last year in Matt Bailey, but even he only had 10 goals and 7 assists on the year. Their most important returners are their pair of junior goaltenders - on a team with as little scoring as Anchorage had last year, the play of the goalie is all the more important. Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson who split the goaltending duties last season will be the two most important players for the Seawolves this year. They'll need to be stellar for the Seawolves to make it out of the bottom of the league.


Offensive Player of the Year: Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
Defensive Player of the Year: Joey LaLeggia, Denver
Goaltender of the Year: Sam Brittain, Denver
Rookie of the Year: Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota
Coach of the Year: Don Lucia, Minnesota

WCHA First Team:

F Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
F Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State
F Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
D Joey LaLeggia, Denver
D Nate Schmidt, Minnesota
G Sam Brittain, Denver

WCHA Second Team:

F Danny Kristo, North Dakota
F Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College
F Matt White, Nebraska-Omaha
D Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
D Zach Palmquist, Minnesota State - Mankato
G Ryan Faragher, St. Cloud State

Under the Radar Guys to Watch:

Alaska-Anchorage: Austin Coldwell, sophomore D, 2-12-14 last season
Bemidji State: Radoslav Illo, junior F, 7-10-17 last season
Colorado College: Eamonn McDermott, junior D, 2-8-10 last season
Denver: Ty Loney, sophomore F, 10-11-21 last season
Michigan Tech: David Johnstone, sophomore F, 11-18-29 last season
Minnesota: Travis Boyd, sophomore F, 1-8-9 last season, and Christian Isackson, sophomore F, 0-0-0 last season
Minnesota State: Jean-Paul LaFontaine, sophomore F, 13-15-28 last season
Minnesota-Duluth: Caleb Hebrert, sophomore F, 14-19-33 last season
Nebraska-Omaha: Andrej Sustr, junior D, 4-13-17 last season
North Dakota: Rocco Grimaldi, freshman F, 1-1-2 last season (in four games)
St. Cloud State: Andrew Prochno, sophomore D, 5-24-29 last season
Wisconsin: Joseph LaBate, sophomore F, 5-15-20 last season

WCHA Team Ranking Tiers:

1st Tier - Minnesota
2nd Tier - North Dakota
3rd Tier - Denver
4th Tier - St. Cloud State, Wisconsin, Colorado College
5th Tier - Minnesota State Mankato, Nebraska Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech
6th Tier - Bemidji State
7th Tier - Alaska-Anchorage

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bjugstad Returning to U of M for Junior Season

Nick Bjugstad has decided to come home. Bjugstad, a sophomore who led the Maroon and Gold with 25 goals last season, will return to Mariucci Arena for his junior year. His presence will bolster an already formidable returning lineup for the Gophers, one that includes leading scorer Erik Haula (20-29-49), along with Kyle Rau (18-25-43) and defenseman Nate Schmidt (3-38-41). In an interview with, Bjugstad noted that the Gophers are "going to have a good team this year and hopefully get another chance at the national championship and make a run there." However, the decision wasn't easy: "It was pretty tough. I put a lot of thought into it. There were a lot of pros and cons. I sat down with my family and everyone and I was also able to go to Florida's camp and hear what they had to say. They are a great organization." At the end of the day, though, the draw of competing for a national championship was too strong for Bjugstad to turn pro. "We have a great team coming back. That played a big part in it, looking at who my teammates are. I love my teammates and it is a lot of fun playing with them. I cannot say enough about the incoming freshman either. They look like they are going to be real good as well. We will have a strong team and hopefully we can put a good year together." Gopher head coach Don Lucia echoed Bjugstad's optimistic tone: "We are excited about the group we have returning. We had a great year last year winning the MacNaughton Cup and advancing to the Frozen Four. With the nucleus we have returning and our incoming freshman we will obviously have high goals and high expectations, but we would not want it any other way." All in all, Minnesota returns seven of its nine 20-point scorers from last season, as well as all six starting defensemen. The Gophers will struggle to fill the holes left by senior forwards Jake Hansen (16-22-38) and captain Taylor Matson (8-15-23), as well as netminder Kent Patterson (28-14-1, .907 SV%). Today’s announcement by Bjugstad, however, should go a long way towards taking the sting out of the departures from last year’s team. The Gophers kick off the 2012-2013 season with an exhibition game against Lethbridge on October 6th, before opening the regular season at home against Michigan State on October 12th. NOTE: I am now writing for, where this post can be found. Please look there for more Gopher Hockey news!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gophers Stomp North Dakota 5-2 in Regional Final to Advance to Frozen Four

By now you know what happened a few weeks ago when the Gophers took on the University of North Dakota for the right to travel to Tampa and play in the Frozen Four. Minnesota led the game from start to finish, never taking their foot off the gas and routing North Dakota to the tune of a 5-2 drubbing. Gopher goals were scored by Ben Marshall, Erik Haula, Taylor Matson, Travis Boyd and Nate Condon. I'll highlight the individuals that were the stars of the game below, but the more important point is this: the Gophers, a team picked to finish sixth in the league by the coaches, is one of the final four teams remaining with a chance to win the national championship. They will face Boston College, with the winner advancing to face the winner between Ferris State and Union College.

Regional Final: Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Kent Patterson - 2 GA, 24 Sv on 26 shots, 0.923 Sv%

Patterson made the game look easy, allowing very few rebounds and making all the saves he was supposed to make. In fact, the only goals he allowed were one to Danny Kristo off of a funny bounce and another to Mario Lamoureux when the game was 5-1 Gophers with just a couple minutes left in the third. Patterson has been the Gophers' best player all year, and in the playoffs they'll need him to be their best player in the frozen four if they're going to win the national championship.

2. Travis Boyd - 1G-1A-2P

Boyd has worked hard all year and has had very little to show for it on the stat sheet. He's been one of my favorite players to watch due to his hustle and his knack to win the puck on the forecheck. The freshman from Hopkins by way of the National Development Program in Ann Arbor couldn't have picked a much better time to score his first career goal, as his tally gave the Gophers a three-goal lead in the game. Boyd was good all game, and the goal helped seal the game. He's well deserving of the #2 star.

1. Nate Condon - 1G-1A-2P

Condon is a dynamic player, and his goal, the Gophers' fifth of the game, was of a style that we've come to expect from the sophomore. He took the puck from the red line and his speed turned a probable one-on-one rush into a breakaway, which Condon put away to absolutely clinch the game for Minnesota. He was solid all game, connecting on passes and making good decisions with the puck, even assisting on the Boyd goal. Condon has added some stickhandling abilities to his repertoire that consists of blazing speed, and he utilized every trick in his arsenal against North Dakota. He was the number one star of the game.

Upcoming: Gophers vs. BC in the Frozen Four

The Gophers will travel to Tampa and take on Boston College, winners of 17 straight and the best team in the country, in the second Frozen Four game of the day. BC is actually a team very similar in style and makeup to the Gophers: they have deep scoring, great goaltending and solid team defense. Both teams like to play a fast-paced, high-flying offensive game. When Minnesota is playing their best, they are the best team in the nation. Boston College is used to playing at their best, but they're a team that is also very good when they play to their potential. It should be a great game! Go Gophers!

Monday, March 26, 2012

NCAA West Regional: Gophers-Sioux Highlights

I'm too elated to post something right now... just watch this video and enjoy it!


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gophers-North Dakota, Part Six: Trip to Tampa On the Line

Minnesota beat Boston University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament yesterday. North Dakota beat Western Michigan, too. Well, lookee here - Gophers-North Dakota on the big stage once again.

The last time these two teams faced each other in the NCAA Tourney, North Dakota won the game in overtime:

This came the weekend after the famous Blake Wheeler goal for the Gophers to win the Final Five in overtime:

In case anyone does not remember, North Dakota embarrassed the Gophers in the Final Five this year after the Gophers had built a 3-0 lead through 38 minutes of play, scoring six unanswered goals to win the game 6-3. Perhaps Minnesota can turn the tables on North Dakota in a similar way this season.

The puck drops in just a few minutes (4:30 CST) on ESPNU. Let's go Gophers!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

NCAA Tournament: Day 1 Results and Other Musings

The NCAA Hockey Tournament started yesterday, as four of the eight first round games faced off to ultimately decide this year's champion. I attempted to predict yesterday's games, and here's what I came up with:

Michigan over Cornell in a close game
Denver over Ferris in a 2-3 goal game
Miami over Lowell in a 2 goal game
Union over Michigan State in a 3 goal game

Only one of those predictions was correct, as Union beat Michigan State 3-1. Otherwise, Cornell upended Michigan 3-2 in OT, UMass-Lowell defeated Miami 3-2 in OT, and Ferris State beat Denver 2-1.

It's pretty clear that there's a fair amount of parity in college hockey these days - the two #4 seeds definitely skated with the #1 seeds, and Cornell actually defeated Michigan in their game. Miami, a two seed, lost to three-seed Lowell. It's not like it was ten years ago when a #1 seed was expected to win by five or six goals against the number four. There are now some bubble teams who were on the outside looking in that could have a legitimate shot of advancing.

Perhaps it's time for the NCAA to consider expanding the tournament? The competition level is definitely there. I think it would be reasonable if the tournament expanded to 20 teams - five teams in each of the four regions, with the four seed playing the five seed in a first-round elimination game before facing the #1 seed in the region. It would give more teams a chance to compete, and with the level of hockey being played in colleges across the country it would only provide more excitement and opportunity for college hockey.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Epic Gopher Collapse as Sioux Score Five Goals in 3rd Period to Win

In case you haven't noticed, I've been trying to avoid writing this post. Well, here goes nothing.

The Gophers faced off against the Sioux in the semifinal game of the Final Five. As you probably know by now, the Gophers built a 3-0 lead through the late second period before the Sioux came storming back, scoring one late in the second and five in the third to swamp the Gophers and advance to the Final Five Championship game, which they would win a day later over Denver by a 4-0 score.

What you may not recognize at first blush is just how absurd this game was. I've watched a lot of Gopher Hockey in my life, and the Gophers may have played the best game I've EVER seen them play for 39 minutes. Unfortunately, they forgot that a hockey game is three periods long and absolutely tanked in the third. At one point late in the second period, the shots on goal were 19-4 Gophers, and the edge in play was about that wide. Minnesota controlled the puck for the entirety of the first two periods, but a series of goals scored on semi-fortunate bounces gave North Dakota new life, as a seeing-eye shot from the point by Derek Forbort beat Patterson to cut the Gopher lead to two. Then, early in the third, Michael Parks scored a goal on a deflection off the endboards, Brock Nelson scored on a botched clearing attempt by the Gophers in the slot, Mario Lamoureux got another one, Corban Knight scored on a weird deflection, and Lamoureux scored his second of the night on another one off the endboards.

This was really a tale of two games, and the Gophers did not do enough in their portion of the game to put North Dakota away. The Gophers only scored three goals despite putting a ton of grade "A" chances on Sioux goalie Aaron Dell, who was the player of the game in my book. Dell stopped several Nick Bjugstad point-blank chances and got some help from the post as Travis Boyd hit the crossbar on a two-on-one opportunity. When you're dominating the game, you've got to score and put it out of reach. The Gophers failed to do that in the first two periods, and the Sioux made them pay.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Nick Bjugstad - 0G-0A-0P

Bjugstad did not score in the game, but he had a ton of quality chances and his line dominated when it was out there. Bjugstad doesn't get held off the scoresheet that often, so I expect him to take advantage in the NCAA Tournament.

2. Nate Schmidt - 0G-2A-2P

Schmidt set up the Gophers' first two goals, and his 35 assists rank fourth nationally and first on this Minnesota squad. The Gophers will need his offense in the national tournament.

1. Kyle Rau - 1G-1A-2P

Rau scored the Gophers' first goal and added an assist on the third goal. He always hustles and moves his feet every shift. His 17 goals on the year and 38 points are the most by a Minnesota freshman since Jay Barriball and Kyle Okposo in 2006-2007 (20 and 19 goals respectively) and Jordan Schroeder in 2008-2009 (45 pts). Rau is a vital part of the Gopher attack, and he played a really good game on Friday, the result notwithstanding.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gophers vs. Sioux, Part Three: Final Five Edition

Well, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux topped the St. Cloud State Huskies in the Thursday night play-in game at the Final Five, so that means that the Sioux will face the Gophers in the Final Five nightcap.

North Dakota, of course, has won the past two Final Five tournaments. The last time the Gophers won it was in 2007. Below, a reminiscence:

Go Gophers!

Haula’s Four Goals Lead Gophers to First Round Sweep of Alaska-Anchorage

By virtue of winning the WCHA’s regular season, Minnesota drew the worst team in the league for their opponent in the first round. Twelfth-place Alaska-Anchorage, winners of only five games in league play throughout the season, faced the tough task of winning two out of three on the road if they wanted to upset the Golden Gophers at Mariucci Arena for the second year in a row to advance to the WCHA Final Five. Although both games were tight throughout the majority of the contests, Minnesota prevailed on the strength of Erik Haula’s two goals each night to punch their ticket to St. Paul for the first time in three years.

Friday 3/9/12: 2-1 Gopher Win

Friday night’s game was very reminiscent of last season’s playoff games between the Seawolves and the Gophers. Minnesota likes to play a fast-paced, open ice style of hockey, whereas Anchorage can only compete if they force the Gophers to play their game: low scoring, not many chances, slow, and physical. The Seawolves were able to impose their style of play on the Gophers in both playoff games last season, and Friday night they had success doing so again. However, Minnesota opened the scoring in the second period as Erik Haula fired a wrist shot into the upper corner of the net. Haula would add another goal in the period when Nate Schmidt’s slapshot off the post bounded right to Haula in the slot, who fired the puck into the open net. The Seawolves closed to within one with a powerplay goal at 19:58 of the second, but Haula’s second marker would prove to be the game-winner. Kent Patterson did not have to be particularly sharp throughout the game, only facing 17 shots and stopping all but one of them, but when your team is not scoring in front of you every shot counts, and Patterson was up to the task, diverting several quality Seawolf chances and standing tall in the game’s waning moments to secure the victory.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Kyle Rau – 0G-0A-0P

Rau is one of the rare players that makes his presence felt throughout games even when his name doesn’t appear on the scoresheet. Rau was certainly a presence in Friday night’s game, pestering opponents all night on the penalty kill (and the Gophers were on the PK an awful lot) and hitting much bigger than his 5’8” frame.

2. Nate Schmidt – 0G-1A-1P

Schmidt’s biggest tangible contribution to the game was his shot off the post that Erik Haula put away for the game-winning goal, but he brings much more to this team than his point production. Schmidt is a wonderful skater and frequently spins around defenders to lead the rush up ice. He has a cannon of a slapshot that must be respected on the powerplay or whenever he has the puck at the point, and he’s a good passer who can distribute the biscuit as well. Schmidt’s presence in the lineup is a big part of why this Gopher team is in position to make its’ first NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons, and his play on Friday earned him the number two star.

1. Erik Haula – 2G-0A-0P

Haula scored Minnesota’s only two goals on the night, and was the team's best player on the ice. It seems like Haula has found a new gear, scoring seemingly at will and providing Minnesota with a legitimate two-scoring-line punch that had been missing in the doldrums of the middle of the season. Haula's emergence is vital for this team if it wants to find itself playing in April, so his efforts earn the number one star.

Saturday 3/10/12: 7-3 Gopher Win

For all the trouble that the Gophers had scoring on Friday, they got off to an early start in the goal department on Saturday. Jake Hansen redirected a Ben Marshall shot early in the first to give Minnesota a lead, but Matt Bailey would tie it in the opening minute of the second period on the power play. Then, at 7:11 of the second, two Gophers took penalties at the same time, giving Anchorage a two-minute five on three opportunity that they did not miss. The Seawolves cashed in at 7:57, then again at 8:20 in the shortened five on four chance to give UAA a 3-1 lead. With the way Minnesota had been scoring recently, the two goal UAA lead with over half the game left to play had the fans worried. However, Minnesota would score the next six goals unanswered, getting tallies from Zach Budish, two from Haula, Seth Helgeson and Sam Warning to close the game at 7-3.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Jake Hansen - 1G-0A-1P

Hansen did have the game's opening goal, but I had honestly forgotten about it when I picked him for the number three star on the night. No player on the ice played with as much energy, or with as much effectiveness, as Jake Hansen did on Saturday. He hustled, hit players, and generally made good decisions with and without the puck in all three zones. A great game from him and a well-deserved #3 star.

2. Kyle Rau - 0G-2A-2P

Rau's picture-perfect pass to Zach Budish set up the goal that started the Gopher comeback and made the game 3-2, and his pass to Erik Haula resulted in the game-winner. Rau is everything as advertised from his storied career at Eden Prairie High School - gritty, tough, competitive, goal scorer - but what's impressed me about him is his passing. Rau passes with the finesse of a veteran, and his passes were what helped the Gophers win the game on Saturday.

1. Erik Haula - 2G-2A-4P

What else can be said about Haula? The kid assisted on the Gophers' third goal with a beautiful pass to Nick Bjugstad, then scored Minnesota's fourth and fifth goals (the game-winner and the nail-in-the-coffin goal), and added yet another assist on the seventh tally. The Gophers score enough to remain in games when the two line isn't effective - with Haula playing at a high-level, Minnesota is a team that can go as far as it wants to in the national tournament. Four goals on the weekend and four total points on Saturday give Haula the #1 star for the second straight night.

Coming up: WCHA Final Five

Up next for the Gophers is the WCHA Final Five tournament. Minnesota, the #1 overall seed, will face the winner of the game pitting North Dakota against St. Cloud State on Thursday night. The Gophers play Friday night. UMD awaits the winner of Denver-Michigan Tech. The greatest tournament in college hockey starts next weekend!

Go Gophers!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

WCHA First Round Playoff Primer

It's that time of year again: playoffs.

Below, please find a primer outlining the six series being played this weekend, with the winners earning the right to play in St. Paul for the Final Five title next weekend.

#1 Minnesota vs. #12 Alaska-Anchorage

The Gophers won the league, and along with it the right to face the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves in the first round of the playoffs. Alaska-Anchorage only won five league games all season, and boasted an abysmal 60 goals in 28 league games. Minnesota, on the other hand, scored 88 goals in league play this season (fourth in the conference) while giving up only 57 (the best mark in the league by a whopping 16 goals). Anchorage will try to win by limiting the Gopher offense, while Minnesota must be able to break through the neutral zone trap and score some goals. Prediction: Minnesota sweep, but the games are closer than they should be.

#2 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #11 Minnesota State - Mankato

The Bulldogs host an improving Minnesota State team in the first round. UMD has struggled down the stretch, but should have the firepower to oust Mankato and end their season. Prediction: UMD sweep, but one of the games could be close or go to overtime.

#3 Denver vs. #10 Wisconsin

Denver catches something of a tough break in drawing Wisconsin, as the Badgers are one of the best #10 seeds in the league that I can remember. The Pioneers will be playing on home ice, which could play a large factor as Wisconsin is not a great road team so far this season. Prediction: I could see Wisconsin maybe winning one game, but Denver has too much firepower to go down in the first round, especially with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line.

#4 North Dakota vs. #9 Bemidji State

North Dakota draws rival Bemidji State for this weekend's first round matchup. I think Bemidji could be a better team than people give them credit for, but North Dakota has been playing good hockey the past few weekends and I just don't see them losing at home. Prediction: North Dakota sweep. Unfortunately, we'll be seeing a lot of green North Dakota jerseys at the Final Five this season.

#5 Colorado College vs. #8 Michigan Tech

Tech has struggled down the stretch, and is coming off of being swept on the road by this same Colorado College team. After being picked near the top of the league by many (and at the top of the league by me), Colorado College had to do some work in the back half of their schedule to secure home ice in the first round. Prediction: Colorado College is just too good for Michigan Tech. They may take three games to do it, but CC will be in St. Paul next weekend.

#6 St. Cloud State vs. #7 Nebraska-Omaha

Nebraska-Omaha limped into the playoffs with four straight losses at home. Those losses WERE against Minnesota and Denver, but the team which once was nearly a lock for home ice has to travel to St. Cloud to face the surprisingly surging Huskies. St. Cloud has had to deal with a rash of injuries and defections this season, but it appears to only have made them stronger as they are one of the hotter teams heading into the playoff push. Prediction: Nebraska-Omaha wins a hard-fought away series in three games. They have too much top-end talent to go down without a fight.

Gopher Split with Wisconsin Enough to Claim WCHA Title, MacNaughton Cup

So, this is a little late, but the Gopher Hockey team won the MacNaughton Cup this year. Congratulations on an amazing achievement for Don Lucia and his squad, which had not made the Final Five for two years and had not made the NCAA tournament for three.

I won't bore you with a hit-by-hit game recap of the Wisconsin series. Suffice it to say this: the Gophers sleepwalked their way to a brutal 4-1 defeat on Friday before coming back on Saturday and gutting out a 2-1 win with two third period goals, one of which is my nominee for play of the year. No words will do it justice, just check out the highlights below:

Pay close attention to the Schmidt goal, with the play starting around 1:35. Play of the year.

What the split meant was that, coupled with UMD's one point weekend at St. Cloud, the Gophers won the WCHA's regular season and, along with it, the MacNaughton Cup, an almost ridiculously ornate trophy presented to the winner of the league. Virtually nobody gave this team a chance to succeed at the beginning of the year - the coaches tabbed the Gophers to finish sixth prior to the start of the season, and I predicted that they would finish third in my preseason predictions post (found here) at the beginning of the year. However, even my rampant Gopher homerism could not have predicted that Minnesota would hang a banner by winning the league's regular season. So, a big and heartfelt congrats to the boys - they played well and deserved every bit of their tremendous accomplishment.

Below, check out the Three Gopher Stars of the Wisconsin weekend:

3. Kyle Rau - 0G-0A-0P

Rau did not register a point on the weekend, but he's one of those "motor always running" players that Minnesota desperately needs. He kills penalties well, he has some of the best innate hockey sense that I've ever seen in a player, he skates hard and he's not afraid to throw his body around. Rau is one of those kids that you hate unless he's on your team: ultra-competitive, trash talking every chance he can get and not afraid to back it up with his play on the puck or off of it. He made an impact in this weekend's action, and gets the third star because of it.

2. Erik Haula - 1G-0A-1P

Haula's short-handed goal to tie the game in the third period of Saturday's game was a thing of beauty. Streaking to the net with the puck on a two-on-one, Haula kept getting in close to the goalie until he was able to make a move to his backhand and beat Rumpel to light the lamp. Mariucci Arena erupted with the goal, louder than I've heard for a number of years. It's Haula's competitiveness that impressed me, though. I've been critical of Haula's level of compete in the past, as sometimes it seems like he's going through the motions a la Jordan Schroeder. The past couple weekends have sold me on the fact that this kid wants to win and has the will to make it happen. Haula's goal was one of the biggest of the weekend and he earns the number two star for it.

1. Nate Schmidt - 1G-0A-1P

Schmidt's goal to take the lead in the third period was the play of the year thus far. The only thing remarkable about it to me is that it was only Schmidt's third goal of the season. The kid isn't afraid to shoot the puck and has a cannon of a shot. It looks like he's also developed some moves with the puck, as his deke to get around the sliding Badger defender was reminiscent of some of the great Mike Vannelli moves of a few years ago. Schmidt has been one of the best players on Minnesota's team all year long, and it's great that he finally broke through to score the big goal when they needed it. For a play I will not forget for a long time, Nate Schmidt nabs the number one star of the weekend.

By virtue of their number one ranking in the conference, Minnesota hosts Alaska-Anchorage in first round play. If they can take care of business against the bottom-dwelling Seawolves, they'll punch their ticket to the Final Five for the first time in three years. A WCHA playoff primer is upcoming.

Go Gophers!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Minnesota Completes Sweep in Omaha, Is Three Points Away from WCHA Crown

With UMD charging hard down the stretch to give themselves a chance at the WCHA title, the Gophers needed to grab four points in Omaha last weekend in order to maintain their two point lead in the standings. Minnesota did just that, winning Saturday by a 3-2 count to sweep the weekend series.

Saturday 2/24/12: 3-2 Gopher Win

Minnesota was actually the worse of the two teams immediately after the puck dropped to open the period. It was clear that Dean Blais had his team fired up and ready to play against his alma mater. In fact, the Mavericks jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on a Brent Gwidt goal at 6:05 of the first. However, just 41 seconds later Mark Alt would draw the Gophers even. The rangy Alt streaked down the left wing with the puck, shielding it with his body as he started to cut towards the net. Alt let a backhand shot go that snuck between UNO goalie Ryan Massa's arm and his body, trickling through and into the net. Although they were outshot and outplayed in the first period, Minnesota did take advantage of their opportunities better than Omaha did. A powerplay near the midway mark of the period was the perfect chance for Kyle Rau to strike. Rau got the puck at the doorstep to Massa's left, and fired it into the goaltender's left pad. However, the puck popped back to Rau, and as he was being hauled down by the Maverick defenseman he was able to fire the puck from behind the goal line off of Massa's skate and into the net. There was no more scoring in the period.

The Gophers opened the second period up one goal, and they would soon add to that lead with another Rau powerplay tally. This time, Erik Haula completed a beautiful cross-ice pass that found Rau all alone with an open net to shoot at, and he did not miss. Rau's second goal of the game and 16th of the season came at 9:24 of the second period and would prove to be the game winner.

Although there was no more scoring in the period, perhaps one of the more significant moments of the entire season occurred just prior to the Rau goal. The penalty that UNO's Tony Turgeon took was a two-minute boarding call, but the hit was an awkward one that sent the Gophers' Nick Bjugstad crashing facemask-first into the boards. Bjugstad skated a few shifts after the hit in the second period, but he did not return to the ice in the third and has been listed as day-to-day.

Minnesota's superior conditioning saved the day in the third period, but it was not without drama. A Justin Holl turnover on a Minnesota power play resulted in a Matt White breakaway chance, and White buried the puck by sliding it through Kent Patterson's five-hole. The goal brought the game to a 3-2 score, but that is where the score would remain as the clock ticked all the way down and the Gophers were able to win two HUGE road games against a good Nebraska-Omaha team.


With the four points, Minnesota clinched at worst the #2 overall seed in the WCHA playoffs. Finishing in the top two is of utmost importance, since the first two teams get a bye from the Thursday matchups at the Final Five, while #3 plays #6 and #4 plays #5. The Gophers can clinch a share of the MacNaughton cup with either a win or a UMD loss. Minnesota's magic number to win the league outright is three - any points won by the Gophers or lost by UMD count towards this number.

The Gophers face a Wisconsin team that is coming off a road sweep of Bemidji - their second and third road wins all year. The Badgers have had a rough go of it this season, with their first line of Mark Zengerle, Tyler Barnes and Michael Mersch along with junior defenseman Justin Schultz being their only real threats on offense. The usually strong Badger defense/goaltending tandem has had it tough this year, as Wisconsin graduated two senior keepers last season and are relying on freshmen Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson to carry the load.

Hang that banner, boys!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Gophers Win Overtime Thriller in Omaha to Maintain WCHA Lead

Coming into the weekend, Minnesota had a two point lead in the WCHA. Three Gopher wins in their final four games would clinch the MacNaughton Cup. Although Friday's game was in jeopardy from the second period on, Minnesota dug deep and outscored Nebraska-Omaha 2-0 in the third period and overtime to steal two big points and maintain their lead in the WCHA standings over Minnesota-Duluth.

Friday 2/24/12 - 3-2 Gopher Win

Minnesota struggled in the first five minutes of play. It looked like the Gophers were becoming accustomed to a new building and a new team - Minnesota and Nebraska-Omaha last played in October 2010.

Once the Gophers found their groove, though, they dominated the first period. Sam Warning put the Gophers on top with his fifth goal of the season at 5:53. Warning received an ice-length pass from Nate Schmidt, and the Gophers had a 2-on-1 with Warning and Jake Hansen. Warning, showing a confidence that he's been playing with for four or five straight weekends, elected to shoot, and from the left circle Warning's wrister beat Omaha goalie Ryan Massa high on the glove side.

Minnesota continued to control the first period, outshooting Nebraska-Omaha by an 11-6 margin in the opening frame. However, despite several scoring chances the Gophers were not able to add to their lead, and after one period Minnesota held a 1-0 lead.

Nebraska-Omaha controlled the second period as much as Minnesota had dominated the first. The Mavericks tied the game at one on a Brock Montpetit goal just as a UNO powerplay expired at 7:51. Minnesota received a powerplay of their own at 9:35, but it was the Mavericks that took advantage as freshman Jayson Menga scored his twelfth of the year on a shorthanded 2-on-1. Menga, streaking down the right wing and getting in close to Gopher goalie Kent Patterson before top-shelfing a shot high over Patterson's glove side at 11:06. The Gophers began to pick up their play after the Mavericks' second goal, but despite a large number of high-quality scoring chances Minnesota could not beat Ryan Massa and the Mavericks took their 2-1 lead into the second intermission.

Good teams, though, find a way to win. The Gophers could not get anything past Massa for the first few minutes of the game, but Minnesota's leading scorer put the team on his back and tied the game. Nick Bjugstad took the puck out of the right corner and slid a backhand shot along the ice that somehow got through a screened Massa's five-hole and tied the game at two goals each. Both teams received one powerplay opportunity each throughout the remainder of the third period, but neither the Gophers nor the Mavericks could take advantage of their chance, and by the end of regulation play the teams were knotted at two each and heading to the extra session.

The overtime would not last long. Jake Parenteau, perhaps the Gophers most outstanding defensive defenseman, snapped a wrist shot off from the left point that made its way through traffic and into the upper-left corner of the net. The goal came just 1:46 into the overtime period, and it was Parenteau's first of the season and the first of his Gopher career. The Gophers jumped off the bench and hogpiled on Parenteau in the middle of the ice.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Sam Warning - 1G-0A-1P

Warning scored the first goal of the game, and has been playing well since he was benched in the first game of the Colorado College series more than a month ago. Number eleven has noticeably picked up his game, and very well could have received a star in last week's games against Bemidji State. The play of the whole second line has been one of the big keys in the Gophers' improved performances of late, and Warning's success can only help the team going forward.

2. Nick Bjugstad - 1G-0A-1P

Bjugstad is Minnesota's best offensive player, and the sophomore's individual effort tied the game at two in the third period. Bjugstad's goal was his 23rd of the season, good for third in the nation. This team can go as far as Bjugstad can carry it - as I've been saying all season, Bjugstad needs to score for this team to win. He did, and the Gophers did win the game.

1. Jake Parenteau - 1G-0A-1P

Parenteau picked a good time to score the first goal of his career. His overtime tally won the game and gave the Gophers a crucial two points on the night. Parenteau is the team's best defensive defenseman and has been a stalwart on the blueline all year. He's been given accolades in the three stars segment before for being a lock-down defender, but scoring the game-winner in a huge game definitely deserves the number one star of the night.


With UMD winning their game against CC in overtime last night, the Gophers needed points to remain in the lead in the WCHA standings. The win was huge in the race for the MacNaughton Cup, and with it the Gophers' magic number to win the league is now four points over UMD (any combination of Gopher points won and UMD points lost). Minnesota controls its own destiny, as two wins in their next three games wins the cup, and they could win it tonight with a win and a UMD loss.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Two Weekends Left

With only two weekends remaining in the WCHA season, one would think that the teams would have settled into a groove in the league standings and in the power rankings. Not so. Lots of movement in the WCHA standings, and lots of movement in the power rankings, too. Let's look:

WCHA Standings:

1. Minnesota - 17-7-0 (21-11-1 Overall), 34 Points
2. Minnesota-Duluth - 14-6-4 (20-7-5 Overall), 32 Points
3. Denver - 13-7-4 (18-10-4 Overall), 30 Points
4. Colorado College - 13-10-1 (16-12-2 Overall), 27 Points
4. North Dakota - 13-10-1 (17-11-3 Overall), 27 Points
4. Nebraska-Omaha - 11-8-5 (14-12-6 Overall), 27 Points
7. Michigan Tech - 10-10-4 (13-15-4 Overall), 24 Points
8. St. Cloud State - 10-11-3 (13-15-4 Overall), 23 Points
9. Bemidji State - 9-12-3 (15-14-3 Overall), 21 Points
10. Wisconsin - 8-14-2 (13-15-2 Overall), 18 Points
10. Minnesota State - 8-16-2 (12-20-2 Overall), 18 Points
12. Alaska-Anchorage - 5-20-1 (8-20-2 Overall), 11 Points

Power Rankings:

1. Minnesota (No Change)
Last Ranking: #1
Recent Results: Swept @ (3) Denver, Sweep vs. (8) Bemidji State
21-11-1 Overall, 17-7-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (6) Nebraska-Omaha

The Gophers have been up and down in their recent games, struggling in Denver but sweeping in convincing fashion versus the Beavers. Minnesota is still the team to beat in the league, holding a two-point lead and the tiebreaker over Minnesota-Duluth. The Gophers travel to Omaha and come home to face Wisconsin in their last two weekends.

2. Minnesota-Duluth (No Change)
Last Ranking: #2
Recent Results: Split vs. (4) North Dakota, Win & Tie @ (10) Minnesota State
20-7-5 Overall, 14-6-4 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (5) Colorado College

The Bulldogs gave away a valuable point on Saturday in Mankato, allowing the Mavericks to tie the game with two goals in a ten second stretch with just over two minutes remaining in the game. That point could prove to be costly, as UMD now sits two points behind the Gophers in the league and loses any tiebreaker to them. To win the league, they'll likely need to take at least seven of their remaining eight points and hope the Gophers do no worse than split down the stretch. That could be a tough task, as the Bulldogs host Colorado College and travel to St. Cloud to end the year.

3. Denver (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #4
Recent Results: Sweep vs. (1) Minnesota, Split @ (10) Wisconsin
18-10-4 Overall, 13-7-4 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (4) North Dakota

Denver launched itself staunchly into the conversation for the league title with a sweep of Minnesota two weeks ago. They followed it up with a win Friday night against Wisconsin, but could not complete the sweep, falling on Saturday. With a Minnesota sweep, Denver gave up two points to the Gophers, and now sit four points back. They will probably need to sweep their remaining series' versus North Dakota and at Nebraska-Omaha and hope for a misstep from Minnesota in order to win the league.

4. North Dakota (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #5
Recent Results: Split @ (2) Minnesota-Duluth, Win & Tie vs. (7) Michigan Tech
17-11-3 Overall, 13-10-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (3) Denver

The Fighting Sioux have their name back (for now), and they seem to have found their game as well. North Dakota has climbed from the bottom of the league standings into a tie for fourth place, but they have a series with rival Denver and a home matchup with Minnesota State remaining.

5. Colorado College (DOWN 2)
Last Ranking: #3
Recent Results: Swept @ (8) Bemidji State, Split vs. (6) Nebraska-Omaha
16-12-2 Overall, 13-10-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (2) Minnesota-Duluth

Colorado College continues to be a team that cannot figure out what it is. In a split against Minnesota they were a team with solid goaltending. In taking three out of four points from Denver, they were a team that could beat the best the league had to offer. In being swept at Bemidji State, they were a team that could not win on the road in games that they needed to win. CC takes its act on the road to Duluth this weekend.

6. Nebraska-Omaha (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #7
Recent Results: Tie & Win @ (7) Michigan Tech, Split @ (5) Colorado College
14-12-6 Overall, 11-8-5 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (1) Minnesota

UNO survived two very important series fairly well in the last two weekends, taking five out of eight points against teams tied with them in the standings. The grind continues for them, as they host Minnesota and Denver in their final two weekends. UNO is in a position to grab home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, but they will need to take some points in those difficult games and hope that Michigan Tech cannot make up three points in the standings.

7. Michigan Tech (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #6
Recent Results: Tie & Loss vs. (6) Nebraska-Omaha, Loss & Tie @ (4) North Dakota
13-15-4 Overall, 10-10-4 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (9) St. Cloud State

Michigan Tech moves back out of the top half of the power rankings with disappointing results in games that they needed to take points in. They're now on the outside looking in for a home playoff spot - at this point, they'll need to win some games against St. Cloud State and at Colorado College, and will need to get some help from one of the three teams tied for fourth place in the league.

8. Bemidji State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #8
Recent Results: Sweep vs. (5) Colorado College, Swept @ (1) Minnesota
15-14-3 Overall, 9-12-3 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (10) Wisconsin

Bemidji State has experienced the highs and the lows the last few weeks. They swept Colorado College at home before being swept at Minnesota. The good thing for Bemidji is that they have a chance to make up some ground in their final two weekends of the season - they host a Wisconsin team that has won only one road game all season, and then travel to Anchorage to take on a Seawolf squad that has occupied the bottom of the league table all season. They'll need to get a lot of help in order to make up enough points to get home ice, but they could easily make up enough points to climb into seventh or eighth place in the league.

9. St. Cloud State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #9
Recent Results: Idle, Split vs. (12) Alaska-Anchorage
13-15-4 Overall, 10-11-3 WCHA
Next Week: @ (7) Michigan Tech

After a much needed break, St. Cloud dropped a stunner at home to Alaska-Anchorage before winning the rubber match on Saturday night. Despite all their injuries, the Huskies still sit just four points out of home ice. They'll need to do damage against good teams the rest of the way, as they travel to Houghton to take on Michigan Tech before coming home to host the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth.

10. Minnesota State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #10
Recent Results: Sweep @ (12) Alaska-Anchorage, Loss & Tie vs. (2) Minnesota-Duluth
12-20-2 Overall, 8-16-2 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

Mankato continues to prove that they're not as bad as their record suggests. They went up to Anchorage and swept (something that the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth could not do), and then came home and took one point against that same Bulldogs team. The one point came in stunning fashion, too - down two goals with just over two minutes left, Minnesota State scored two in just ten seconds to force a tie. The Mavericks have this weekend off before traveling to Grand Forks to take on the Fighting Sioux in their season finale.

11. Wisconsin (No Change)
Last Ranking: #11
Recent Results: Idle, Split vs. (3) Denver
13-15-2 Overall, 8-14-2 WCHA
Next Week: @ (8) Bemidji State

For a team that is allergic to winning on the road, the next couple weekends might not be all that fun for the Wisconsin Badgers. Bucky travels to Bemidji to take on the better-than-expected Beavers, before heading to Minneapolis to battle the Gophers in both teams' regular season finales. Wisconsin could very well finish 11th in the league.

12. Alaska-Anchorage (No Change)
Last Ranking: #12
Recent Results: Swept vs. (10) Minnesota State, Split @ (9) St. Cloud State
8-20-2 Overall, 5-20-1 WCHA
Next Week: Non-Conference Home-and-Home vs. Alaska-Fairbanks

Alaska-Anchorage was swept at home by Minnesota State, but traveled to St. Cloud and took an overtime win on Friday night. The Seawolves play a home-and-home versus Alaska-Fairbanks before hosting Bemidji State in their final WCHA series of the season. They will likely finish last in the WCHA and will need to travel to the WCHA champion's rink for the first round of the playoffs.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

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

This Week

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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gophers Complete Sweep of Beavers with 4-1 Victory

Coming into this weekend's action, nearly everyone was asking the same question: could a struggling Minnesota team summon the will necessary to beat a streaking Bemidji squad?

The short answer: Yes.

In another dominating performance, the Gophers took care of the visiting Beavers 4-1 to secure a weekend sweep and widen their lead in the race for the MacNaughton Cup.

Saturday 2/18/12: 4-1 Gopher Win

Friday night's game started out with a Zach Budish goal at the one minute mark of the game. On Saturday, Erik Haula was just a little late. Haula scored at 1:17 of the first to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Although Minnesota would carry the majority of the play throughout the rest of the first period, Bemidji struck for their first (and only) goal of the weekend, as Brad Hunt's slapshot from the point beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson at 17:14 to tie the game at one goal each.

The Gophers would answer in the second period. Jake Hansen tipped a Justin Holl shot past Beaver netminder Dan Bakala at 2:05 to give the Gophers another lead at 2-1. Erik Haula would score his second goal of the game on the powerplay at 7:07 of the second. At that point, the Gophers put the game on cruise control.

Minnesota played sound defensive hockey in the latter half of the second and the entirety of the third, favoring dump-ins to rushes into the zone and forcing Bemidji to rush the puck the full length of the ice to create opportunities. This strategy worked, as Bemidji could not muster another tally in the third. A Seth Ambroz empty net goal at 18:27 was the final nail in the Beaver coffin.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Jake Hansen - 1G-0A-1P

Hansen scored the game-winning goal on a beautiful tip, but he took an ill advised penalty right after Bemidji had scored to tie the game in the first period. That is a microcosm of Hansen's season thus far. The senior has been nothing if not inconsistent, playing great at times and making bad decisions at others. His goal was important in the game, but I'd like to see more of the dynamic, offensive Hansen and less of the bad passing, bad decision-making one. Perhaps he's rounding into form, as his play of late has been much more of the former and less of the latter.

2. Seth Helgeson - 0G-1A-1P

Helgeson tallied an assist on the Ambroz empty net goal, but his contributions throughout the rest of the game earn him the second star tonight. Helgeson has been maligned by yours truly throughout the years for being slow on his skates and for seemingly always pinching in at the wrong times. Tonight (and for the past few weekends) he has been steady and solid on the back end for the Gophers. He likely won't win any fastest skater contests, but Helgeson seems to have grown into his role on the team - hard-nosed, tough, defensive defender. If he can continue playing within himself and playing to his strengths, he'll find his way into the three stars a lot more often.

1. Erik Haula - 2G-1A-3P

Another great night for the Fin. Haula scored the Gophers' first and third goals, sniping shots into the corners of the net. It's great to see Minnesota get secondary scoring when the Bjugstad line does not light the lamp. If they can do it more consistently going forward, they'll be a team to be reckoned with come tournament time.


The win gave the Gophers a much needed four points on the weekend, and coupled with a Duluth tie in Mankato and a Denver loss at Wisconsin, the Gophers are once again sitting pretty in the WCHA race. Minnesota sits at 34 points, two ahead of Minnesota-Duluth (32) and four ahead of Denver (30). Interestingly, Minnesota holds the tiebreaker against Duluth thanks to their two head-to-head wins at the beginning of the season, but loses the tiebreaker to Denver. So, in reality, Minnesota has a three point lead on both DU and UMD to win the MacNaughton. With just four games left to play, Minnesota can clinch the WCHA title with three wins. That may be a challenge, though, as they travel to Omaha to take on the UNO Mavericks next weekend. The Mavs are coming off a road split at Colorado College, and are in a three-way tie for fourth place in the league with Colorado College and North Dakota. They will be fighting for points and for home ice, so don't expect Nebraska-Omaha to lay down and surrender to Minnesota.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Minnesota Routs Bemidji State 3-0 to Keep Pace Atop WCHA

Minnesota finally may have exorcised its Friday demons.

Winning just three of their previous ten Friday contests, the Gophers (20-11-1 Overall, 16-7-0 WCHA) came out like gangbusters last night, thoroughly dominating the play and the scoresheet en route to a 3-0 drubbing of Bemidji State (15-13-3 Overall, 9-11-3 WCHA).

Friday 2/17/12: 3-0 Gopher Win

The Gopher domination of Friday night's game started early. Zach Budish tipped a Mark Alt slapshot past Beaver goalie Dan Bakala at 1:00 of the first period to give the Gophers a lead they would never vanquish. In fact, the game was never in doubt after that first minute. Minnesota did not allow a shot on goal until the 12-minute mark of the first period, and Beaver scoring chances were hard to come by all night. The Gophers extended their lead at 9:13 of the period, when Budish again found a loose puck in front of the crease and banged it home to make the score 2-0. That's the way it ended after the first period, and the shots on goal told the story: Minnesota outshot Bemidji State 14-2 in the opening frame.

The Gophers did not let up on the domination in the second or third, controlling the play what seemed like nine out of every ten seconds. The shots advantage continued to widen for Minnesota - by the end of the game they held a 36-13 lead. The Gophers would tack another goal on in the second period, a Nick Bjugstad tally from the weak side off of a nifty goalmouth pass from Kyle Rau.

The third period was all about protecting the shutout bid for Kent Patterson. Minnesota, maligned last weekend for taking unnecessary penalties that cost them a chance to win the game, did not commit a penalty throughout the sixty minutes of action. Patterson only had to make one or two quality saves all night - including a dandy on a partial two-on-one - to earn his seventh shutout of the season.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Kent Patterson - 13 saves on 13 shots, 7th shutout of the season

Patterson did not allow a goal on a night when the opposing team did not have much chance of scoring. The senior netminder's conference-leading 2.04 GAA speaks both to his ability as a goaltender and his teammates' attitude towards backchecking, clogging lanes and blocking shots. The shutout was Patterson's seventh of the season, extending his team-record for shutouts in a single season.

2. Nick Bjugstad - 1G-1A-2P

Bjugstad got back on track against Bemidji after tallying only one total assist in his previous three games. The sophomore leads the team with 22 goals and 36 points on the year. Minnesota needs Bjugstad to be their best offensive player.

1. Zach Budish - 2G-0A-2P

Budish scored the first two goals of the game for Minnesota, and his goals set the tone for the game. It's nice to see Budish succeed on that top line after being oft overshadowed by linemates Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. The redshirt sophomore's two goals got him to the ten-goal mark on the season, and the Gophers now have six players who have reached that level of production.


The victory gave the Gophers a much needed two points in the WCHA - they were needed because both UMD and Denver won their games on Friday. The race for the MacNaughton Cup has become a three-horse field, as Minnesota (32 points) narrowly leads Minnesota-Duluth (31 points) and Denver (30 points). Tonight's game is a big one for the Gophers, who could do no worse than maintain their position in the conference with a win. They'll need to put forth another quality effort tonight if they want to sweep this tough Beaver squad - Bemidji is now 11-5-2 in their last 18 games, and they will be doing everything they can to avoid the sweep.

Friday, February 17, 2012

WCHA Race Tightens as Gophers Swept in Denver

Prior to last weekend's results, Minnesota had a three point lead in the WCHA standings and looked for all the world like they were the team that would capture the league title.

Funny how much things can change in just one weekend.

The Gophers' once relatively straight-forward road to the WCHA's regular season crown was muddled last weekend in Denver, as the surging Pioneers swept the visiting Maroon and Gold to draw to within two points of the league lead. The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs also gained ground on the Gophers, with a home split against North Dakota to pull them to within one point of the league leaders.

Friday 2/10/12: 5-3 Gopher Loss

Minnesota was on the board first in Friday night's tilt, grabbing a 1-0 lead at 9:08 of the first period on a Nate Condon tally. Denver, who had dominated the start of the period prior to the Condon goal, would not let up, and found themselves scoring three times before the horn sounded to mark the end of the first frame: Shawn Ostrow at 9:48, Dustin Jackson at 12:37, and Nate Dewhurst at 17:32. The shots on goal at the end of one were 19-9 in favor of the home Pioneers, and it showed on the ice. Minnesota was sluggish and turnover-prone, and Denver was able to capitalize on the Gopher mistakes.

The second period was a better one for Minnesota, but it too was marred by errors. The Gophers drew to within one at 1:56 of the period on a Kyle Rau powerplay tally. Denver, however, regained their two-goal cushion at 4:02 on a soft goal by Jason Zucker. Zucker's shot from the corner glanced off Kent Patterson and into the net. Zucker was again involved in a game-changing play which would see both he and Kyle Rau leave the game at 6:38 of the period. Zucker had just gotten rid of the puck along the boards at center ice when Rau skated from across the ice to deliver an aggressive hit to Zucker's upper chest / chin area. Zucker crumpled to the ice and Rau was sent off with a five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding. Zucker eventually walked off the ice with the aid of trainers, but he did not return on the weekend.

Minnesota killed off the ensuing Denver power play, but right after it expired Chris Knowlton netted another goal to put Denver up by a commanding 5-2 mark. Minnesota's Zach Budish responded at 15:19 to draw the Gophers back within two goals, but that was as close as they'd get.

Neither team scored in the third period, and although the shots on goal ended up even at 34 each it was clear that Denver was the better team on the night. Minnesota continued to make uncharacteristic defensive zone mistakes that cost them dearly in the end, as the Gophers would suffer only their second loss by more than one goal all season.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Jake Parenteau - 0G-0A-0P

Parenteau continues to be a rock on defense for this Gopher squad. The best defensive-defenseman on the roster, Parenteau deserves to be given a lot of credit for Nate Schmidt's breakout season - without Parenteau playing the stay-at-home role, Schmidt would likely not be able to jump into the rush as often as he has.

2. Joey Miller - 0G-0A-0P

Miller was one of the most effective Gophers on the ice Friday night. He's one of those players that knows his role on the team and has accepted it. He plays hard, and he's seen his ice time increase over the past several months as Coach Lucia has rewarded him for some solid play.

1. Nate Condon - 1G-0A-1P

Condon, as has frequently been the case this season, was the best player on the ice for Minnesota on Friday night. He scored one goal but easily could have had multiple points as he set up numerous teammates on near-miss chances. Condon has really benefitted from playing with Taylor Matson for the past two years - for my money, Condon is the most improved player on the team, and his compete level is very high.

Saturday: 4-3 Gopher Loss

The Gophers followed up Friday night's loss with an all-around good performance Saturday. The game started off on the right foot, as Erik Haula sniped a shot past Sam Brittain just 38 seconds into the game to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead. That lead would hold up throughout the first period, and Minnesota added to it as Zach Budish scored at the end of a Gopher powerplay at 15:17 to extend their lead to 2-0. However, Denver would cut the lead to one before the period expired as Chris Knowlton scored on a breakaway at 17:37.

Denver completed their comeback at 2:33 of the third, as Luke Salazar tipped the puck past Patterson on the powerplay to even the game at two. The Gophers would come back, as Nico Sacchetti one-timed a Sam Warning pass into the Denver net to give the Gophers a lead heading into the final ten minutes of the period. However, Denver got a powerplay on a Justin Holl high stick with just over three minutes left in the game, and Nick Shore did not miss his opportunity, putting a snapshot from the left circle past Kent Patterson at 18:34 of the third.

The goal tied the game and sent it into overtime, where just 17 seconds into the extra frame Nick Shore beat Patterson again on a broken play off of a Gopher defensive zone faceoff. The goal gave Denver the victory on the night, the weekend sweep, and a valuable four points in the standings to climb into third place, just two points behind first place Minnesota.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Sam Warning - 0G-1A-1P

Warning has picked up his game in the last several weeks, and he made several great plays, including the pass that set up the go-ahead and should-have-been game-winner to Nico Sacchetti. The Gophers need secondary scoring, and Warning's points will be big down the stretch.

2. Nico Sacchetti - 1G-0A-1P

With Kyle Rau out, Nico Sacchetti got top line minutes, paired with Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad. The experiment paid off as Nico scored the Gophers' third goal on the night and played solid throughout the game, working hard in the corners and being the "grit" guy to offset Bjugstad and Haula's skill game. He also has been playing well of late, and the senior is a guy that Coach Lucia is finding hard to keep out of the lineup.

1. Erik Haula - 1G-0A-1P

I've been on Erik Haula's case a lot recently, as it seems like the sophomore has been playing vapid and uninspired hockey. Saturday's game was a welcome change of pace, as Haula scored in the first minute of the game to set the tone for what was one of his best games in the past several months. Haula was effective on both ends of the ice, hustling to backchecks and being effective in the attack zone. The Gophers need his firepower as the season winds down, so hopefully Haula can find a way to become more consistent.

Next: Gophers vs. Bemidji State

The Gophers come back home to the friendly confines of Mariucci Arena to take on the Bemidji State Beavers this weekend. The Beavers are coming off of a home sweep of Colorado College, and sit tied for eighth place in the league (but just three points out of home ice). The Beavers are 11-4-2 in their past 17 games. Minnesota could really use a sweep this weekend, but somehow I think that the Beavers are going to steal a point or two from this inconsistent Gopher squad. Three points for the Gophers this weekend.

Monday, February 6, 2012

2011-2012 WCHA Power Rankings & Tiers: Down the Stretch

With just four weekends remaining in the WCHA's regular season, here's another look at the league's Power Rankings.

WCHA Standings:

1. Minnesota - 15-5-0 (19-9-1 Overall), 30 Points
2. Minnesota-Duluth - 12-5-3 (18-6-4 Overall), 27 Points
3. Colorado College - 12-7-1 (15-9-2 Overall), 25 Points
4. Denver - 10-6-4 (15-9-4 Overall), 24 Points
5. North Dakota - 11-9-0 (15-10-2 Overall), 22 Points
5. Nebraska-Omaha - 9-7-4 (12-11-5 Overall), 22 Points
5. Michigan Tech - 10-8-2 (13-13-2 Overall), 22 Points
8. St. Cloud State - 9-10-3 (12-14-4 Overall), 21 Points
9. Bemidji State - 7-10-3 (13-12-3 Overall), 17 Points
10. Wisconsin - 7-13-2 (12-14-2 Overall), 16 Points
11. Minnesota State - 6-15-1 (10-19-1 Overall), 13 Points
12. Alaska-Anchorage - 4-17-1 (7-17-2 Overall), 9 Points

Power Rankings:

1. Minnesota (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #2
Recent Results: Split vs. (3) CC, Sweep in Home-and-Home vs. (9) SCSU
19-9-1 Overall, 15-5-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (4) Denver

With the Bulldogs spinning their wheels, Minnesota has taken over atop the WCHA Power Rankings. The Gophers are winning on the heels of their stout team defense, which has stiffened of late. Minnesota has averaged 1.67 goals against in its past six contests. However, they're only scoring an average of 2.5 goals per game in those six tilts, so they'll need to start finding some more consistent offense if they are going to be a contender in the postseason.

2. Minnesota-Duluth (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #1
Recent Results: Loss & Tie vs. (6) Michigan Tech, Split @ (12) Alaska-Anchorage
18-6-4 Overall, 12-5-3 WCHA
Next Week: vs (5) North Dakota

As mentioned above, UMD has had its share of tough games over the past few weekends. The Bulldogs went up 4-0 in the first period of Friday's game against Michigan Tech, before giving up nine unanswered goals on the weekend (four Friday, five Saturday) to come away with only one point. Then they traveled up to Anchorage and came away with only two points against a down Seawolves team. If UMD is going to win the league now, they'll need to do so with the "cake" of their schedule behind them: red-hot North Dakota comes to town this weekend, followed by an away series at Minnesota State, home versus Colorado College and rounding out the season in St. Cloud.

3. Colorado College (No Change)
Last Ranking: #3
Recent Results: Split vs. (1) Minnesota, Win & Tie vs. (4) Denver
15-9-2 Overall, 12-7-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (8) Bemidji State

The Tigers survived the last two weekends in the meat grinder fairly well. CC took two valuable points at Mariucci Arena against Minnesota, and then took three of four from last weekend's rivalry series against Denver. Colorado College has all but locked up home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

4. Denver (UP 1)
Last Ranking: #5
Recent Results: Sweep @ (12) Alaska-Anchorage, Loss & Tie vs. (3) Colorado College
15-9-4 Overall, 10-6-4 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (1) Minnesota

The Pioneers swept the Seawolves in Anchorage before taking one point in a fiercely-contested series with Colorado College. However, the biggest reason the Pioneers are moving up the Power Rankings Board is the return of starting goaltender Sam Brittain. Brittain, last season's starter, suffered a torn ACL last offseason. He returned for the first time in the second Alaska-Anchorage game with a victory before allowing just one goal against Colorado College on Friday. With some stability between the pipes, Denver could be a team to be feared down the stretch.

5. North Dakota (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #4
Recent Results: Sweep vs. (11) Wisconsin, Idle
15-10-2 Overall, 11-9-0 WCHA
Next Week: @ (2) Minnesota-Duluth

After suffering a slight bump in the road on their perennial second-half surge (consecutive losses vs. Minnesota, @ St. Cloud), North Dakota has rattled off three wins in a row to jump back into the thick of the home-ice battle in the WCHA. Now tied for fifth in the league with Nebraska-Omaha and Michigan Tech, North Dakota faces a tough road test this weekend as they travel to Duluth.

6. Michigan Tech (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #8
Recent Results: Tie & Win @ (2) Minnesota-Duluth, Split @ (10) Minnesota State
13-13-2 Overall, 10-8-2 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (7) Nebraska-Omaha

Michigan Tech may have saved its season sometime between the first and second periods in Duluth. Down 4-0 after one, the Huskies rattled off the next four goals on Friday and the only five goals on Saturday to skate out of AmsOil Arena with a stunning three points against the Bulldogs. Tech followed it up by splitting on the road in Mankato. The Huskies face another important series this weekend, squaring off with Nebraska-Omaha in a showdown that could go a long way in determining home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

7. Nebraska-Omaha (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #6
Recent Results: Split @ (10) Minnesota State, Tie & Loss vs. (8) Bemidji State
12-11-5 Overall, 9-7-4 WCHA
Next Week: @ (6) Michigan Tech

Omaha moves out of the top half of the Power Rankings with disappointing weekends at Mankato and against Bemidji. The Mavericks have played in three overtime games in their past four, going 1-1-1 in those contests. UNO faces off against Michigan Tech this weekend in a clash between two teams tied for fifth in the conference standings.

8. Bemidji State (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #7
Recent Results: Split vs. (10) Minnesota State, Tie & Win @ (7) Nebraska-Omaha
13-12-3 Overall, 7-10-3 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (3) Colorado College

The Beavers only have 17 points in the WCHA thus far, good for ninth place in the conference and five points out of home ice. However, this Bemidji team is one that I see as "sneaky good" - they can beat good teams. They've posted quality wins this season, and could very well steal some points from Colorado College this weekend.

9. St. Cloud State (No Change)
Last Ranking: #9
Recent Results: Swept in Home-and-Home vs. (1) Minnesota, Sweep @ (11) Wisconsin
12-14-4 Overall, 9-10-3 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

The Huskies need a weekend off. They dressed only ten forwards in Friday's game against Minnesota before losing Travis Novak to a knee injury. In the three games since, Bob Motzko's crew has had only three offensive lines available. Despite that, St. Cloud went into Wisconsin and swept the home Badgers. However, their extreme injury issues keep them below Bemidji in the Power Rankings.

10. Minnesota State (UP 2)
Last Ranking: #12
Recent Results: Split @ (8) Bemidji State, Split vs. (6) Michigan Tech
10-19-1 Overall, 6-15-1 WCHA
Next Week: @ (12) Alaska-Anchorage

I'm going to say this right now: I was wrong about Minnesota State. I ranked them dead last in the conference before the season started, and it is true that the Mavericks have hovered near the bottom of the league table most of the year. However, the Maverick team that began the year 2-12-1 in the conference is a lot different than the team that has now gone 4-3-0 in their last seven league games. This team has a chance to pick up a couple more wins down the stretch, and could very well play the spoiler in their games against Minnesota-Duluth and at North Dakota to end the season.

11. Wisconsin (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #10
Recent Results: Swept @ (5) North Dakota, Swept vs. (9) St. Cloud State
12-14-2 Overall, 7-13-2 WCHA
Next Week: Idle

I'm not sure what has been ailing the Wisconsin Badgers this season. They have one of the most dynamic players in all of college hockey in Justin Schultz, yet they still have a hard time doing just about anything on the ice. The team has won one road game all season, and has dropped their last four contests. They get a week off before hosting Denver two weekends from now.

12. Alaska-Anchorage (DOWN 1)
Last Ranking: #11
Recent Results: Swept vs. (4) Denver, Split vs. (2) Minnesota-Duluth
7-17-2 Overall, 4-17-1 WCHA
Next Week: vs. (10) Minnesota State

Alaska-Anchorage has had a rough go of it this season. Their win over Minnesota-Duluth snapped an eight-game losing streak dating back to December 10th. The Seawolves host the Minnesota State Mavericks this weekend.

Team Tiers:

Last Week

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

This Week

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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gopher Hockey "Helmet Stickers" Through St. Cloud State Weekend

You know how teams like Ohio State and Georgia give out helmet stickers to their players when they score touchdowns or otherwise make big plays? Well, here is a rundown of the "helmet stickers" that Gopher players have earned by being in "Three Gopher Stars of the Game / Weekend" - remember, a #1 star of the game earns you three stickers, #2 is two stickers, #3 is one sticker, whereas a #1 star of the weekend nets six stickers, #2 is four stickers and #3 is two stickers. Think of it as a rundown of players who have stood out the most in games thus far.

Gopher Helmet Stickers

1. Kent Patterson, 37 stickers
2. Taylor Matson, 22 stickers
3. Kyle Rau, 20 stickers
4. Nate Condon, 17 stickers
5. Nick Bjugstad, 16 stickers
6. Tom Serratore, 10 stickers
7. Jake Hansen, 9 stickers
7. Nate Schmidt, 9 stickers
9. Sam Warning, 7 stickers
10. Mark Alt, 6 stickers
11. Zach Budish, 4 stickers
11. Erik Haula, 4 stickers
11. Justin Holl, 4 stickers
14. Jake Parenteau, 3 stickers
15. Seth Ambroz, 2 stickers
15. Ben Marshall, 2 stickers
15. Nico Sacchetti, 2 stickers
18. Travis Boyd, 1 sticker
18. Chris Student, 1 sticker

Minnesota Sweeps Home-and-Home Versus St. Cloud State to Widen WCHA Lead

Prior to this weekend, Minnesota had not won two consecutive games since the end of December, when they beat Michigan Tech before the Christmas break and Niagara after. They had not swept a weekend series since beating Minnesota State at the beginning of December. They had not won a Friday game since the Niagara game in the Mariucci Classic.

This weekend changed all that.

The Golden Gophers (19-9-1 Overall, 15-5-0 WCHA) swept the weekend series with St. Cloud State to remain atop the league standings and further solidify their bid for an NCAA tournament spot. Minnesota dominated the play both nights, but were only able to squeak by the relentless Huskies by one goal each game.

Friday 1/27/11 - 2-1 Gopher Win

Friday night's game was notable for its slow start. Neither team looked good in the first ten minutes of action, and the play was punctuated by numerous offsides and icing whistles. Minnesota was able to shake off the rust and get on the board first when Jake Hansen took a two-on-one opportunity and made it into his own mini-breakaway, streaking down the right wing and getting past the defender before cutting towards the St. Cloud net. All alone in front, Hansen took a quick shot which Husky goaltender Mike Lee saved, but the ensuing rebound popped up in the air in the crease, where Hansen was able to bat the puck out of the air and into the net as his momentum carried him across the the face of the goal.

The goal was the only score of the period, and would give the Gophers the lead until 4:26 of the second, when St. Cloud's leading scorer Ben Hanowski beat Kent Patterson from the middle of the right faceoff dot to tie the game. The Gophers would strike back near the halfway mark of the game. Minnesota executed a near-perfect three-on-two rush to score at 11:49 of the period as Kyle Rau taking position in the center of the ice passed to his left to Jake Hansen, who fed a cross-ice pass through defenders to Nick Bjugstad on the right wing. Bjugstad, who leads the Gophers with 21 goals on the year, does not miss a wide open net very often, and he did not here, roofing the puck to give the Gophers the 2-1 lead which they would end the game with.

The third period was not without its excitement, as St. Cloud had four straight minutes of power play with just six minutes to play, but the Gopher team defense flexed is muscle right when it needed to, allowing only one shot on goal in the third to stifle the Huskies and change their narrow 2-1 lead into a 2-1 victory.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Seth Ambroz - 0G-0A-0P

The game seems to be starting to click for Ambroz. He's taking many fewer "stupid" penalties and is learning how to use his size to his advantage on the ice.

2. Nick Bjugstad - 1G-0A-1P

Bjugstad often imposes his will on games - he uses his size to beat other players on the ice, and has hand skills more becoming of a small sniper than a big bruiser. His 21st goal of the year was the game winner. Bjugstad also won 14 of the 17 faceoffs he took on Friday.

1. Jake Hansen - 1G-1A-2P

I'm not entirely sure who was wearing the #21 jersey on Friday night, but it was a different Jake Hansen than I've seen all year. This version of Jake Hansen skated hard, was aggressive on the puck and won the one-on-one puck battles. He completed more tape-to-tape passes on Friday than he has the rest of the year combined, and of course scored the first goal of the game on a great individual effort as well as making the thread-the-needle pass to Nick Bjugstad on the game-winner. Hansen was the best Gopher on the ice on Friday.

Saturday - 3-2 Gopher Win

Coming off their first Friday WCHA win since early December, the Gophers were smelling blood and looking for a sweep. Minnesota put together its best team defensive effort of the season giving up just 12 shots on goal throughout the game, but needed a late third-period goal in order to salvage a 3-2 win.

The Gophers dominated the first period, but it was St. Cloud that would skate away with a 1-0 lead as Ben Hanowski stuffed the puck under Kent Patterson and whacked away until it crossed the goal line at 13:54 of the first.

The Gophers would respond in the middle of the second period, as a Ben Marshall powerplay slapshot beat St. Cloud netminder Ryan Faragher and tied the game at one goal each. Minnesota took advantage of another powerplay opportunity later in the period, as Erik Haula scored his eleventh goal of the year and second goal since December 3rd on a one-time snapshot from the slot. Kyle Rau and Nate Schmidt assisted on the goal.

The Gophers dominated the remainder of the period, but another goofy St. Cloud goal tied the game sixty two seconds left. Ben Hanowski again lit the lamp for the Huskies, as a shot from behind the goal-line ricocheted off of Kent Patterson's skate and into the net. The teams were tied heading into the third period, despite the fact that had outshot the Huskies 28-9 and generally dominated the play.

The third offered more of the same, as Minnesota outshot St. Cloud 18-3 in the final frame but were still tied at two with less than two minutes left. For the second time in as many nights, the Gophers executed a near-perfect 3-on-2 with seventy nine seconds to go. Jake Hansen took the puck down the left wing before passing it to the trailing Justin Holl in the slot. Holl drew the defenders to him before passing the puck to the left for a wide-open Sam Warning. Warning one-timed a shot past Faragher to get the Gophers a 3-2 lead which they would hold onto (despite a St. Cloud hit post with their goalie pulled) for the weekend sweep.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Erik Haula - 1G-0A-1P

Haula broke out of his terrible slump by scoring the Gophers' second goal of the game. The team's second line was the best line on the ice all weekend. The Gophers need to get some more offense from their bottom-nine forwards, and if the second line can continue to bolster the first line's scoring, Minnesota could maintain their spot atop the WCHA for the remainder of the season.

2. Jake Hansen - 0G-1A-1P

Hansen, the team's best player on Friday, was equally as impressive on Saturday, notching an assist on the game-winning goal for the second night in a row. Hansen's hustle this weekend was nice to see from the senior. He was solid on the penalty kill all game long, and his efforts were a big part of why the Gophers only gave up twelve shots on goal throughout the whole game.

1. Sam Warning - 1G-0A-1P

Warning has had a rough go of it this year, seeing his ice-time reduced while he has struggled to make an impact in the lineup. Warning had a great weekend, though, and capped off the good effort with a late goal in the third period to win the game for the Gophers. Warning is a small player with big skills, and hopefully this weekend's results can further his confidence and propel him into the Gophers' secondary scoring conversation.

Other Thoughts

Combined with a surprising one-point weekend by Minnesota-Duluth at home to Michigan Tech, the Gophers' sweep gives them thirty points in the WCHA and a big five point lead in the league. UMD does have two games in hand on the Gophers, but Minnesota has five points and the tiebreaker on the Bulldogs.

Don't look now, but North Dakota is right back in it. The nameless-ones swept a disappointing Wisconsin team and are now tied for fourth in the league. As much as I love watching the Gophers beat North Dakota, I would be okay if we did not have to play them again this year. They always get hot at the right time, and this surge could be the typical Dave Hakstol second-half. For those of us who love the Gophers and dislike North Dakota, let's hope that their season ends in typical Dave Hakstol fashion: ultimately disappointing and left wanting for a title.

Could this be the start of a swoon for UMD? Up 4-0 in the first period on Friday, the Bulldogs looked like they were in control of the weekend before giving up four unanswered to Michigan Tech to tie before losing 5-0 to the Huskies on Saturday. Nine straight goals allowed at home to Michigan Tech is not necessarily an inspiring performance. The Bulldogs are still atop the Pairwise rankings, but it will be interesting to see how they respond the rest of the season. Many had already anointed UMD the champions of the WCHA given their easy schedule in the second half, but now in a five point hole to the Gophers we'll see what happens when the rubber meets the road.

Minnesota has a week off next weekend before traveling to Denver for a tough series against the Pioneers.

Go Gophers!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gophers Come Up With Splits @ North Dakota, versus Colorado College to Take Lead in WCHA

Let me start by saying this: the Minnesota Gopher Mens' Hockey team played two pairs of solid, high-effort games in their series' at North Dakota and against Colorado College. I thought Minnesota was the best team on the ice all four nights. However, only two of those nights resulted in Gopher victories. Minnesota (17-9-1 Overall, 13-5-0 WCHA) still has the most wins of any team in the nation (tied with Minnesota-Duluth), but doubts are starting to creep into the minds of the Gopher faithful as the team has dropped to the bubble of the NCAA tournament on their weak non-conference performances (losses to Notre Dame, Vermont, Northeastern and Michigan State). The Gophers are playing solid hockey of late, but cannot seem to get the puck in the net. A pair of 2-1 losses to North Dakota and Colorado College over the past two weekends tells the tale perfectly.

Friday, 1/13/12: 2-1 Gopher Loss

Two weekends ago, the Gophers traveled up to Grand Forks to take on the newly unchristened University of North Dakota. Tensions were running high on both sides of the rink, as North Dakota was looking to pay back the Gophers for their home sweep of the then-Sioux back in November at Mariucci Arena.

Minnesota looked like the better team right from the drop of the puck, controlling the puck in the offensive zone at a near two-to-one clip compared to North Dakota's zone time of possession. For North Dakota to stay in the game, they needed junior goaltender Aaron Dell to be their best player. Luckily for them, he was. Dell stopped all eight Gopher shots in the first period and led his team into the first intermission with a 0-0 tie. The second period was more of the same - all Gophers - and Minnesota actually capitalized on a Kyle Rau goal at 6:29 of the middle frame. Rau, skating down the left wing, banged home a rebound off a wide-angle shot from the right wing by Zach Budish. The Gophers made it to the final ten seconds of the period before allowing North Dakota to tie up the game. A botched North Dakota icing call with less than twenty seconds left allowed North Dakota to gain the Gopher offensive zone, and when Nick Bjugstad turned the puck over at the point Andrew MacWilliam was there to fire a seeing-eye slapshot past Patterson and into the net.

The goal gave North Dakota new life and the momentum heading into the third period, but it was Minnesota that dominated the final twenty minutes of the contest. Like earlier in the game, though, Aaron Dell stood on his head and kept his team in the game. With under four minutes left to play, North Dakota's leading scorer Brock Nelson took the puck out of the corner, skated through a weak Nick Bjugstad poke check attempt and slid the puck along the ice and through the five-hole of Patterson to give his team the lead. Minnesota put together a furious attack in the waning minutes of the game, but Dell once again stood tall and North Dakota eked out a 2-1 win.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Kyle Rau - 1G-0A-1P

Rau scored the Gophers' only goal of the game and was his pesky self throughout, drawing penalties and making the smart play nearly every time he had the puck.

2. Kent Patterson - 23 saves on 25 shots, .920 Sv%

Although Minnesota dominated the puck-control battle on Friday night, North Dakota had the better of the chances, having plenty of odd-man rush looks. Patterson stopped them all and kept the Gophers in the game.

1. Jake Parenteau - 0G-0A-0P

Parenteau returned to the lineup against North Dakota after having missed a few games due to illness. His return proved just how important he is to the defense. Parenteau is the team's best stay-at-home defenseman. He makes good, quick puck decisions and is seemingly always in the right position. I was thoroughly impressed with his game on Friday night.

Saturday 1/14/12 - 6-2 Gopher Win

Saturday night was the Gophers' turn for revenge on North Dakota. Minnesota piled goals on early and often, coming away with a 4-2 rout of the hometown no-namers.

Nick Bjugstad was ready to make up for his blunders on Friday night (both goals could be attributed to bad plays by him), as he scored early and often to get the team off on the right foot. Bjugstad scored at 2:37 of the first on a partial breakaway set up by Kyle Rau, and again at 19:40 on a Rau / Parenteau rebound.

The Gophers would score twice more in the second period before North Dakota could get on the board, on a Seth Ambroz shot that somehow slunk under Dell and into the back of the net and a Nate Schmidt power play one-timer from the blue line. North Dakota would score the next two goals, however, as Michael Parks and Danny Kristo scored to pull them within two. However, Minnesota would score another back-breaking goal with less than one minute left, as Nate Condon took an Ambroz pass and beat goalie Dell to give the Gophers a three goal lead heading into the third.

The Gophers would only extend the lead in the third period, as Condon once again lit the lamp shorthanded on a Taylor Matson breakaway pass. The end of the game contained loads of excitement, as Ben Blood went after Kyle Rau in the handshake line and both teams left the ice without finishing shaking hands. However, after all that emotion and excitement, Minnesota walked away with an away split and thorough Saturday night drubbing of the University of North Dakota.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Seth Ambroz - 1G-1A-2P

Ambroz is starting to grow into his role as a big, bruising freshman on this Gopher team. Playing on what I consider to be the Gophers' second-best line this year with Taylor Matson and Nate Condon (technically the "third line"), Ambroz is starting to become more than just a big body on this team. He's showing some of the skill and grit that made him a highly sought after recruit, and if he can continue making positive offensive plays like he did against North Dakota he will make the Gophers that much better.

2. Nate Condon - 2G-1A-3P

Condon continues to get better and better in his sophomore season. The fastest player that I have seen so far this year for any team, Condon has honed his game to include tremendous play in the corners / along the walls, excellent face-off ability and a good hockey mind. He and Taylor Matson have already teamed up for something like six or seven shorthanded goals on the year, and the dynamic duo will continue to do it throughout the rest of the season. Condon's first goal at the end of the second period clinched this game for the Gophers.

1. Nick Bjugstad - 2G-0A-2P

This was a big bounceback game for Nick Bjugstad. Big Nick was the goat on Friday night, having two of his turnovers lead directly to the two North Dakota goals. It was clear that Bjugstad was motivated to make things right on Saturday, scoring Minnesota's first two goals on the game to give the Gophers a big early lead. Bjugstad is a one-man wrecking crew for this Gopher team, and he (along with Kent Patterson) is the most important player on the squad. Since it appears that the Haula-Hansen-Warning line is not planning on scoring ever again, it is up to Bjugstad to put the puck in the net if this Gopher team is going to win hockey games.

Colorado College Series

The Gophers came home after the emotional series against North Dakota to take on a good Colorado College team at Mariucci Arena the next weekend. Colorado College sat in third place in the WCHA, only four points behind Minnesota and breathing down their necks. The Gophers again played two solid games, but their lack of scoring punch limited them to just one win on the weekend.

Friday 1/20/12 - 2-1 Gopher Loss

I can sum this game up in just a couple sentences. The Gophers DOMINATED the game but could not score (a problem all too familiar to followers of the Maroon and Gold recently). Colorado College scored a goal on a Gopher defensive turnover in the second period. Minnesota pulled the goalie late in the third and tied up the game on a Nick Bjugstad goal. Thirty seconds later and immediately after a Grade-A scoring chance by the Gophers, Colorado College scored a goal to go up 2-1 and win the game. It was a frustrating experience, to say the least.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Kyle Rau - 0G-0A-0P

Rau is one of those players who shows up to play no matter whether the rest of the team does or not. In Friday night's game, Kyle Rau was all over the ice - drawing penalties, throwing hits, creating scoring chances.

2. Nick Bjugstad - 1G-0A-1P

Bjugstad scored his 20th goal of the season with the goalie pulled, and this clutch performance reminded fans of how clutch Bjugstad has been throughout the season. No Gopher has scored 20 goals in a season since the 2008-2009 season when Ryan Stoa scored 24 goals and was named an All-American. I expect Bjugstad to score close to 30 goals this season and be named to the All-America team.

1. Kent Patterson - 25 saves on 27 shots, 0.926 Sv%

Patterson again kept the Gophers in the game when they could not score to save their lives. Kent Patterson could be the best goaltender in the country.

Saturday 1/21/12 - 2-1 Gopher Win

Minnesota played another solid game Saturday night, eking out a narrow 2-1 victory despite being the better team for most of the game. Colorado College scored first, with Jaden Schwartz putting the Tigers out front at 15:02 of the period. Minnesota came storming back, though, as Nate Condon scored yet another shorthanded goal (from Taylor Matson, of course) at 17:41 of the period. The Gophers scored two more goals in the second period, but one was disallowed. Nico Sacchetti scored what would be the game-winning goal at 5:16 of the period, putting his own rebound past Tiger goalie Thorimbert. Then, Nate Condon put another puck past Thorimbert for what could have been his second goal of the game, but the referees disallowed the play because there was a hand pass in order to get the puck to Condon's stick.

Although Colorado College pressed late in the third, Minnesota held on for a 2-1 win that put them ahead of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs for sole possession of first place in the WCHA.

Three Gopher Stars of the Game

3. Kent Patterson - 19 saves on 20 shots, 0.950 Sv%, 1 assist

Another good game for Patterson. This Gopher squad has only lost by more than one goal one time this season, which makes goaltending all the more of a premium. Patterson gives the Gophers a chance every night. Plus, Patterson added an assist on the Condon shorthanded goal.

2. Nico Sacchetti - 1G-0A-1P

Sacchetti, playing in only his eighth game of the season, had one of the biggest goals of his career to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead in the game. The eventual game-winning tally was Sacchetti's first of the year, and the senior has taken his limited ice time and made the most of it. Maybe he'll see more playing time now that Nick Larson, a staple of the Gopher fourth line, is out for a few weeks with a broken wrist.

1. Nate Condon - 1G-0A-1P

Condon seems to get a shorthanded chance every single night when paired with Taylor Matson on the kill, and he often delivers. Condon's ninth goal of the season was also his fourth shorthanded tally, and as mentioned above Condon has become much more than just the fastest guy on the team. He's matured into one of the more productive scorers on the Gophers, and at a time when Erik Haula, Jake Hansen, Sam Warning and Zach Budish are slumping scoring-wise, it's imperative that guys like Condon pick up the slack.