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!