Gophers Await Sioux-Huskies Winner
For the first time since 2009, the Golden Gophers find themselves playing hockey and not golf as the WCHA Final Five weekend approaches. Better yet, the team is the top overall seed heading into this weekend’s showdown in St. Paul, and have an NCAA Tournament spot locked up as well, meaning they’ll be playing at least one contest each of the next two weekends at the Xcel Energy Center. The key now is to make sure they are not one-and-done on either of the aforementioned weekends.
Coming off the heels of the expected two-game sweep of Alaska Anchorage to open the WCHA playoffs, the Gophers know they’ll play the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup between two of the hotter teams in the league as North Dakota and St. Cloud State square off at 7 p.m. Meanwhile, Denver, who edged out Wisconsin in the only first round series to go three games, will take on the surprising Michigan Tech Huskies, who swept Colorado College in the only first round series in which a lower seed advanced. The winner of said game will take on Minnesota Duluth on Friday afternoon.
In terms of who the Gophers are more likely to take on Friday night, you’d have to give a big edge to the Fighting Sioux going into Thursday’s game with the Huskies. Yes, St. Cloud State is 7-1-2 in its last ten contests and needs to win the Final Five to keep its season alive past this weekend, so the motivation and sense of urgency is certainly higher for the Huskies than it is for most other teams in the field of six this weekend. But since being swept in Minneapolis in early November, North Dakota has the best record of any WCHA team at 19-6-2 and has lost just twice in its last 13 contests. These two teams split the season series win two wins a piece, but the Sioux will have the vast majority of the crowd behind them, so look for North Dakota to emerge victorious.
This of course will setup another Sioux-Gophers Final Five showdown, and when these teams get together in St. Paul, they usually don’t disappoint. As previously mentioned, the Gophers have been on a bit of a hiatus from the Final Five, so the last time these two teams tangled at the X was the infamous 2007 championship game in which Blake Wheeler scored one of the most amazing goals you’ll ever see to give the Gophers a 3-2 overtime win. In 2004-05, UND beat the Gophers 4-2 in the third place game that was chippy to say the least. The season before though, they played another classic, with the Gophers coming away with a 5-4 win the title game in which the Maroon and Gold scored three third period goals including Grand Potulny’s winner with just over six minutes to go.
Much will be on the line for both team’s should they meet on Friday night in terms of the PairWise Rankings and NCAA Tournament implications. Right now the Gophers sit alone in eighth, meaning they’d get the last No. 2 seed for the NCAAs. Because of their poor non-conference record, the Gophers can’t jump up too far unless they win the Final Five. Conversely, they can easily drop down to a No. 3 seed should they lose to either UND or SCSU on Friday, which obviously isn’t ideal. North Dakota is tied with DU for 11th in the PairWise Rankings but can move up to as high as a No. 1 seed should they win three games this weekend. Even winning twice and then losing on Saturday should lock them into a two seed.
As previously noted, St. Cloud State needs to run the table this weekend to secure an NCAA berth. Same applies to Michigan Tech. DU is probably in though losing to Tech on Thursday might place them on the bubble. UMD is No. 3 in the PairWise right now and if they win on Friday against the Tech / DU winner, they should be a No. 1 seed and will likely join the Gophers in St. Paul at the West Regional next weekend.
The Gophers won three of the four meetings against both North Dakota and St. Cloud State this season, so you’d have to say they matchup will with either team. The Sioux skated with just 17 players (plus goalies) last weekend, and they injury troubles this season have been well-documented. Big-time credit goes to Dave Hakstol and his staff for getting this team to play at such a high-level since mid-November on. They are led by their top line of Brock Nelson, Danny Kristo, and Corban Knight, who have combined for 115 points. Between that trio scoring and the backend / goaltending coming together, one could make a very strong case that the Sioux are favored to come out of St. Paul with hardware this weekend, despite the fact they’d have to win three games to do it.
Should the Gophers take on St. Cloud State, they’ll have to try and stop junior Ben Hanowski, who has 42 points and seemingly kills the Gophers every time they play the Huskies. The key for SCSU’s turnaround though has been the play of junior goalie Mike Lee, who’s been awesome since returning from injury in January.
The one concern for the Gophers for the rest of the season might be goal-scoring. Yes, they hung seven on Anchorage last Saturday, but prior to that game, they had scored more than three goals in a game just twice since Dec. 31. Granted it’s a team built on having maybe the top goaltender in the country and playing great team defense, but as a fan you worry when you play a lot of low-scoring, tightly contested games week in and week out.
Sophomore Erik Haula has been the team’s top offensive player over the last month or so, and he now leads the team in scoring with 44 points. It’s been rare when Haula’s line, along with the top line of Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish have both had solid nights at the same time during the second half of the season. Hopefully they can put together a few of those types of games moving forward here, as they might have to if this team wants to hang another banner this weekend and/or advance to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla.
Regardless of what happens on Thursday, Friday and Saturday should both be excellent days of hockey in St. Paul (aside from the Wild having to drag everyone down by playing on Saturday afternoon). That, combined with summer-like weather in St. Paul, should make for a great weekend in what is the second-to-last Final Five.