Border Battle In Buckyville Next Up For Gophers
As they’ve done many times this season, the Golden Gophers gave fans a small glimmer of hope, just when you were ready to count them out via last Saturday’s 7-3 victory over the Denver Pioneers. The season-saving victory put them in position to possibly grab one of the final home-ice spots for the WCHA playoffs, assuming they are able to head east to Madison this weekend and get at least one win in the border battle against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Certainly last Saturday’s seven-goal outburst is a reason for Gophers fans to get excited; and given the state of the team prior to that win, it was much-needed coming off another one-goal performance in Friday’s 2-1 loss to DU. That was the third time in their last six games the Gophers scored one goal or less. The Gophers had 37 shots in the loss, but the flip-side to that is DU had four breakaways in the first two periods and didn’t score on any of them, so it’s easy to argue that both sides “could have” scored more goals. The fact is the Gophers generally find ways not to score goals, and on this night, DU managed to beat Kent Patterson twice, and that was enough for the win.
Had the Gophers lost on Saturday, there was a chance they could have dropped to tenth place in the WCHA. However, they showed up to play on this day and got production from their top players, which is not something that generally happens, and their 12-12-4 record would speak to that fact. However, on this day, a lot of the key names appeared on the scoresheet, with the team getting goals from Mike Hoeffel, Jacob Cepis, Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad, and also defenseman Cade Fairchild, who had a banner day with not only a goal but three helpers as well.
Now the Gophers sit in a three-way tie for 19th in the current PairWise Rankings, and a couple victories this weekend would likely vault them up a few spots and put them right on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Conversely, going winless in Madtown probably eliminates any chance of them making the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid.
With the win, the Gophers were able to move ahead of Alaska Anchorage in the standings (wow, that’s depressing) and now are just a point behind Colorado College for sixth place. Behind Minnesota, who has 21 points, the Seawolves trail by just a point but have played two more games. St. Cloud State has 19 points but have a brutal schedule the rest of the way (vs. UND, vs. UW, at Denver). However, they just took three of four points from the Bulldogs in Duluth, so never say never, but it’s doubtful they’ll be able to put a run together that would allow them to pass the Gophers. Minnesota State has 18 points with 24 games played and Bemidji State has 17 points with 22 games played.
Looking north, the Gophers are now just three points behind this weekend’s opponent – the Badgers – and Minnesota has a cake schedule past this weekend in hosting Michigan Tech and then going to Bemidji State. However, playing Alaska at home should have been cake too, but the Gophers split and were shutout in one of the two games. So, point being, you can’t take anything for granted with this team.
All that being said, if they can go into Madison and get a split this weekend and then take care of business against teams they should beat, they’ll likely land one of the final two home-ice spots and put themselves in position to return to the WCHA Final Five after missing out on the event last season.
The Badgers are coming off a tough weekend in which they were swept at Omaha by scorings of 4-1 and 4-3. It was their first real clunker of a weekend since mid-November, as they had just two losses in their previous 16 games. Now, it should be noted that in those 16 games, the opponents included Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Massachusetts, Canisius, Minnesota State, and Michigan Tech. Not ripping them since, as the Gophers have shown, it’s not always easy to beat the teams you should, and the Badgers have done just that over the last two months, but they haven’t been playing the best of the best during their impressive run.
To the point, the Badgers have just one win against the top four teams (North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, and Nebraska Omaha) in the WCHA, with that coming at UMD a few weeks back. Conversely, the Gophers have three wins against those four teams, so that could bode well for the Gophers this weekend.
Back in early November, the Badgers came into Mariucci Arena and drilled the Gophers by a 6-0 score in the first game of the series before the Gophers rebounded to secure a 3-3 tie on Saturday. Senior Alex Kangas was in net for the loss, while Patterson was in there for the tie on Saturday.
The key for Wisconsin’s success this season can be directly tied to a pair of blueliners: junior Jake Gardiner and sophomore Just Schultz. The Badgers lost three absolute stud defensemen off last year’s team in the form of Cody Goloubef, Ryan McDonagh, and Brendan Smith, but these two guys have been able to take monumental steps and have emerged as two of the best defensemen in the nation.
Schultz has taken over the role of the point-man on the power play and the results bear that out: he has an insane 15 goals and 41 points on the season and is one of the leading scorers in the nation. Again, as a sophomore defenseman. Stunning. Gardiner has eight goals of his own and 32 points on the year.
Schultz has some issues in his own end, but you’ll accept that gladly when you’re getting well over a point per game output on the other end of the ice. Both men are able to get the puck out of their own end and start the transition game ultra-fast which is paramount.
Up front, sophomore Craig Smith has 16 goals and 37 points and has typically centered their top line along side junior Jordy Murray (16 goals, 23 points) and freshman Mark Zengerle (five goals, 34 points). After that trio, the next three Badger lines don’t have a whole lot of standouts and are made up of your more “typical Badgers,” with guys who are sound defensively, tough to play against, etc.
On the year, the Badgers are eighth in the WCHA in scoring offense at just 2.73 goals per game. Their power play is fourth in the league which isn’t surprising given the high amount of skill they have on the backend.
But the strength of this Badgers team, as is often the case with Wisconsin teams, is on the backend. Senior netminder Scott Gudmandson has taken over as the No. 1 netminder and has sparkling numbers with a .930 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average. In WCHA play, they are first in scoring defense in allowing 2.23 goals per game and have the league’s best penalty kill at 84.8 percent.
So, as is a safe bet in games the Gophers play, the first team to get to three goals this weekend will probably get the victory. Minnesota has just one win this season when they score two goals or less, so it would seem unlikely that they’re going to head to the Kohl Center and win a 2-1 type game. They’ll have to score three or four goals and hopefully stay out of the penalty box to keep their power play off the ice.
Getting the first goal could be huge for the Gophers as well, since that could help take the raucous Badger crowd out of the game. The Badgers are 13-4-1 on the season at home but only 6-4-0 in WCHA play.
The Gophers will hope to get senior Jay Barriball back from a lower-body injury this weekend, but will be without junior Jake Hansen for Friday’s game due to him betting a game disqualification in Saturday’s win versus Denver.
If the Gophers can get production from their high-end players as they did last Saturday, they’ll put themselves in a great spot to get two points or more from Bucky. However, if those guys pull a disappearing act as they do all too often, then it’s going to be very tough to go on the road in a hostile environment and perform well.
One of those key guys is obviously Patterson, who again was a rock last weekend and has been the team’s MVP all season long. As was the case against DU, he’ll probably have to make some huge saves on both nights to keep the Gophers in the game at times and give the guys in front of him a chance to win.
Friday’s game will air live on the Big Ten Network at 7 p.m., with the Saturday rematch airing live on Fox Sports North at 8 p.m.