Gophers and Huskies Set For Home-and-Home Rematch
The Gophers continued their up-and-down play last weekend in splitting a pair of low-scoring, tightly contested games with the Colorado College Tigers at Mariucci Arena, and now set their sights on the St. Cloud State Huskies in what could be viewed as a must-sweep series for the Maroon and Gold.
In Friday’s 2-1 loss, the Gophers certainly played well enough to win but a pair of defensive zone faceoff losses led to both Colorado College goals, including the game-winner with less than a minute to go in the game. CC goalie Josh Thorimbert kept his team in the game early but turning away 15 first period shots, and only Nick Bjugstad was able to beat him late. He made 38 saves in the Tiger victory.
Saturday’s game was similar in that it was clear the Gophers were the better team, and that really showed in the third period as Minnesota outshot CC by a 19-6 margin in the third period and held one of the nation’s top five offenses to just 20 shots. Kent Patterson, who was his usual solid self all weekend, made a breakaway save in the closing seconds to secure the victory. The offense came from sophomore Nate Condon, who scored his fourth shorthanded goal of the season, and senior Nico Sacchetti, who scored his first goal of the season in the second period which proved to be the winner.
Because Minnesota Duluth was in non-conference action last weekend, the Gophers moved two points ahead of the Bulldogs but have now played two more games. Given the schedules for both teams the rest of the way, it would be a giant upset if the Gophers finished ahead of the defending champs.
While the Gophers are in good shape in the WCHA race – they are now four points up on CC for third place, five clear of UNO for fourth, and seven ahead of DU for fifth – their position in the PairWise Rankings is anything but solid thanks to their 4-4-1 non-conference record. Right now they are 13th in the PairWise Rankings, which of course is used to determine the field of 16 for the NCAA Tournament. Due to autobids for conference winners, teams need to be in the 14 or higher to feel safe, so they are right on the brink.
With the PairWise Rankings, teams with an RPI over .500 are considered teams under consideration (TUC) and all of those teams (right now there are 31 of them) are compared against each other head-to-head. Right now, the No. 1 team is BU as they win all 30 comparisons against the other teams under consideration. The ways in which the teams are compared include RPI, record vs. TUC, record vs. common opponents, and how the teams have done in head-to-head meetings.
The losses at home over the holidays to Northeastern and Notre Dame really put a dent in the team’s ranking and unfortunately for the Gophers, they don’t have any more games outside of the WCHA schedule to try and improve things vs. teams not in their conference.
So, what the Gophers CAN do is do more than split on a weekly basis, especially against teams that won’t be in the NCAA Tournament come this March. Lucky for the Gophers, they have one of those teams on the schedule this weekend in the form of St. Cloud State. The Huskies are currently is tied with Michigan Tech for seventh place in the WCHA with 17 points in 18 games. Since their split against the Gophers they are 4-5-2 which is a pretty similar record to that of the Gophers since that weekend (Minnesota has gone 6-6-1 since).
The Gophers and the Huskies split a home-and-home series back in November, with SCSU winning a wild 4-3 game on Friday night at the National Hockey Center, and the Gophers bouncing back on Saturday with a commanding 5-0 win. Including the weekend prior to that in which the Gophers split at Wisconsin, the Gophers have had just one WCHA weekend that resulted in a sweep – they won both games at Mariucci against Minnesota State on Dec. 2-3 – since sweeping UND on Nov. 4-5. Minnesota has lost on Friday to Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech, North Dakota, and Colorado College only to bounce-back and win the Saturday rematch in all five occasions. And while it’s nice to show some resolve by rebounding, the Gophers are going to need more than two points a weekend the rest of the way if they hope to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskies have been besieged by injuries this season though they hope to get junior goalie Mike Lee, who suffered a leg injury in late October, back in the mix soon. Freshman Ryan Faragher has settled in nicely though in Lee’s place as he currently has the sixth-best save percentage in the WCHA; goaltending has not been the reason for the poor season the Huskies are having to date. The loss of senior captain Drew LeBlanc after just ten games was crippling. Combine that with the mid-season departure of Cam Reid, who had 15 points in 22 games before leaving for Major Junior, and the team just doesn’t have the firepower up front that we’re used to seeing for Bob Motzko’s clubs.
Ben Hanowski has 27 points in 26 games as is one of the league’s best forwards. Senior Jared Festler is second on the team in goals with 11. One of the biggest bright spots has been freshman blueliner Andrew Prochno out of Minnetonka who has 20 points in 25 games, which is outstanding for a first-year defender. Fellow d-man Nick Nensen has 19 points in 26 games, so getting offensive production from the backend – which is something that’s plagued SCSU in the past – isn’t an issue this season.
The Huskies are fourth in the WCHA in scoring offense and seventh in defense, but what’s really killed them has been their power play, which is dead-last in the conference at 15.2 percent. Again, the power play has been a staple of Motzko teams, and they did score a pair in their win vs. the Gophers earlier this season, but when you combine the WCHA’s worst power play with the league’s ninth-best penalty kill, and you have your explanation as to why the Huskies are currently in the bottom-half of the league standings.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have had good to great special teams all season long. Last weekend, they held the WCHA’s top-ranking power play off the board all weekend and won the special team’s battle thanks to Condon’s shorty. The Minnesota power play failed to cash in however, and that’s an area of concern due to the lack of production with the man-advantage in recent weeks as the team has just one goal on the power play over its last four games. The puck movement was pretty good against CC though, so hopefully that’s a sign that things are on the verge of changing in that regard.
While this weekend probably won’t make or break the team’s season, putting four points in the back could go a long way to at least staying in the hunt with UMD for the league title and also, and maybe more realistically, securing a second play finish and avoiding a play-in game at the Final Five should they get there. After the SCSU series, the Gophers have an off-weekend before wrapping up the regular season with series at Denver, home vs. Bemidji State, at Nebraska Omaha, and at home vs. the Badgers to wrap things up. There is nothing easy about that road to the finish line, which makes taking care of business against teams you should beat all that much more important.