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.