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!