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.

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