Heading In Different Directions, Gophers-Sioux Set To Clash
Note: Yes, I know they aren't technically the "Fighting Sioux" any more, but this is a fan site and as far as I'm concerned that's what they'll always be known as.
In early November, the Gophers put an exclamation point on the red-hot start to their season by sweeping the Fighting Sioux by scores of 2-0 and 3-2 at Mariucci Arena, which pushed Minnesota’s record to 9-1-0. Meanwhile, the Sioux headed back to Grand Forks with a 3-6-1 record and had just one win in their previous seven games.
Fast-forward to today, and it’s hard to believe the Sioux are the hotter of the two teams and arguably the favorite when the two teams hit the ice this weekend at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Since their winless weekend in Minneapolis, North Dakota has gone 8-2-1 and, in the process, climbed back into the mix for an NCAA berth.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have been spinning their wheels since their sweep of the Sioux, going just 6-6-1 and now find themselves 15-7-1 on the season, which is a solid record when you look at the big picture of things, but not where the team thought it would be after the emotional victories over North Dakota.
In their most recent game, the Gophers fell 4-3 to Notre Dame in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game at Mariucci Arena last weekend. And that game pretty much summed up the Gophers play since the UND weekend; at times they looked solid, but for the most part they lacked that jump we saw early in the season. The Gophers were down 4-1 late in the third before a pair of goals in the last three minutes brought the game to within reach.
There are several reasons why the team’s play has fallen off, but one could argue that the main reason is special teams. In the loss to the Fighting Irish, the Gophers have up a pair of power play goals and also a shorthanded tally. Through the North Dakota series back in November, the Gophers’ power play was at 28.3 percent while the penalty kill was at 88.5 percent. Since then though, both numbers have gone the wrong way: the power play is at just 21.1 percent over the last 13 games, while the penalty kill is at 78 percent.
Nearly 30 percent of the team’s goals on the season have come via the power play, so getting that unit going is going to be paramount of the team is going to get back to its winning ways.
One thing the Gophers haven’t really had to deal with this year is the injury bug, but that certainly isn’t the case for the Sioux. Star freshman Rocco Grimaldi, who was the preseason favorite to be the freshman of the year, has played in just four games. Sophomore forward Derek Rodwell is out for the season after suffering a shoulder injury last month. Arguably the WCHA’s best faceoff man, junior Corban Knight, has been in and out of the lineup with an injury and hasn’t played in the team’s last three games. Senior captain Mario Lamoureux has missed time as well though he rejoined the team last weekend in their 3-1 win over Clarkson. And sophomore defenseman Derek Forbort was injured while playing for the U.S. in the World Junior Championships, and his status for this weekend is up in the air.
The two constants for the Sioux have been sophomore Brock Nelson (15 goals, 24 points) and Danny Kristo (11 goals, 24 points). They have been the wings on the team’s top line essentially all season and have produced at a high level. Head coach Dave Hakstol split the tandem up in the first meeting with the Gophers and they combined for just one goal on the weekend, so it will be key for the Gophers to contain them again, though that’s easier said than done.
Aside from one down weekend against Nebraska Omaha, the offense has been getting the job done for the Sioux despite the rash of injuries. They’ve averaged 3.7 goals per game since being swept by the Gophers, and have 14 goals in their last three games.
In addition to the offense, the backend is getting back to where many thought it would be prior to the season. Since the Gopher weekend, junior Aaron Dell has played better than he did early in the season and as a team they’ve allowed just 2.2 goals per game. The defensive group in front of him is elite and they have those blue chip guys that the Gophers lack, and that could be the difference in the series this weekend.
The Minnesota blueline was the team’s biggest question mark coming into the season, and the group really hasn’t taken a major step forward since early October. The biggest story has been sophomore Nate Schmidt, who continues to excel in the offensive end of the rink with 24 points in 23 games. Fellow sophomores Mark Alt and Justin Holl were the keys to the group perhaps in that they both have the build and pedigree to be big-time college defensemen, but that hasn’t happened this season and it could be the team’s downfall come March. Freshman Ben Marshall has eight points in 23 games but his gaffes continue to prove costly, which is to be expected out of an offensive-minded first-year player.
And unlike early in the season, Kent Patterson looks human more often than not these days. His numbers are still very good (.918 save percentage, 2.13 goals against average) but he certainly isn’t pitching a shutout every other night like he seemingly did at the start of the season. When you factor his slight drop-off in with the offense drying up, and you get a team that’s played .500 hockey for two-plus months.
Again, big-picture wise, the team is still in solid shape to make the NCAA Tournament, though due to the WCHA’s poor play in non-conference games, the conference will probably get no more than three teams into the dance; and lets not forget, part of the WCHA’s issue in out-of-conference games has been due to the Gophers, who finished non-conference play just 4-4-1). And before the season, nobody expected the team to challenge for a conference title or a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But with their strong play early in the season, the team raised expectations and now faces a very tough second-half schedule, with trips to Grand Forks, St. Cloud, Denver, and Omaha on the horizon, and home games against Colorado College, Bemidji State, and Wisconsin on the docket as well. They are still in first place in the WCHA, tied with Minnesota Duluth at 22 points, but face a much tough schedule than the Bulldogs and, more importantly, aren’t playing good hockey.
Things can change quickly though, and there’s no better of a venue or an opponent to get things back on track against than North Dakota. That being said, this is the team’s biggest weekend of the season and they can’t afford another drubbing by the Sioux in Grand Forks, which has been the case more often than not over the past several seasons.
Rest assured North Dakota will remember how things went back in November and will be ready to go from the drop of the puck on Friday night, so Minnesota will need to match UND’s intensity. Patterson will probably need to make some big saves at the right time to keep the team in the game at times, and the defense will need to limit the odd-man rushes and breakdowns that have plagued the group as of late. And, as previously mentioned, Minnesota’s special teams need to get back to being special, which they haven’t been for quite some time.
Friday’s game starts at 7:30 p.m. while the Saturday rematch gets underway at 7 p.m.