Bulldogs, Gophers set to battle for home-ice
For the second straight season, the Golden Gophers find themselves in the bottom-half of the WCHA standings as the regular season is nearing its end. They hope that, unlike last year where they finished in seventh place, which is the specific slot they are in currently, that they will be able to rack up enough points to gain home-ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, and that quest starts this weekend as they welcome the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs to Mariucci Arena.
The Bulldogs currently occupy the last home-ice position – fifth – in the league. They are just one point ahead of St. Cloud State and two points ahead of the Gophers. UMD closes the season out by hosting Alaska Anchorage, so if they can even get a split this weekend, they will put themselves in great position to be playing at the DECC in just over three weeks.
UMD was picked to finish in eighth place by the WCHA coaches before the season, and barring a late-season collapse, they will do much better than that. The key to the team’s success has been junior netminder Alex Stalock. The South St. Paul native has been arguably the top goalie in the league this season, starting all but one game and posting a 2.16 goals against average and a save percentage of .922.
Up front, sophomore Justin Fontaine leads the team with 39 points after posting just 12 points as a first-year player last season. Speaking of freshman, a pair of Connelly’s – Jack and Mike, not related – have really made their presence felt. Mike came to UMD from Camrose of the AJHL and has 27 points in 32 games. Jack, who centers the top line between Fontaine and Jordan Fulton, has 22 points over the same amount of games and tied for the USHL scoring lead a season ago. Both figure to be stalwarts of the Bulldog offense for years to come.
It’s not just the kids that are pulling the weight for Scott Sandelin’s squad. Senior MacGregor Sharp leads the team in goals with 14, while Fulton, a Brooklyn Park native, has chipped in 10 goals himself.
On the blueline, senior Josh Meyers has been one of the league’s most consistent rearguards for a few seasons now, and he’s finishing his time in Duluth off in fine fashion. The Los Angeles Kings draft pick has 23 points on the season and is one of the key’s to UMD’s stout special teams.
The Bulldogs power play is first in the WCHA at 22.1 percent. No team in the conference relies more on their power play than UMD, as a whopping 46 percent of their goals have come with the man-advantage. Because of that, if the Gophers can stay out of the penalty box this weekend, one would conclude that would certainly increase their chances of getting multiple points out of this weekend’s series.
Conversely, UMD’s penalty kill is just seventh overall in the league, and it will be going against Minnesota’s power play which isn’t too shabby either. It has dropped to fourth in the conference at 19.4 percent but has been at or near the top for much of the season. They scored one power play goal in both losses last weekend at Colorado College and had several more quality chances.
It’s been a very frustrating second-half of the season for the Gophers, who have just three wins in 2009. They have been blown out of several games, and they have lost more games by very narrow margins when they maybe deserved to win or at least tie those games. At this point though, you are what you are, and that, in Minnesota’s case, is a seventh place team that’s reeling and is pretty unlikely to appear in their own arena come NCAA Tournament time.
They currently sit 19th in the PairWise Rankings and pretty much need to run the table and make it to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five, and even that might not be enough to climb their way back into the top 13-14 teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. If they make it, they’ll automatically be placed in the West Regional at Mariucci Arena.
Fans have become very frustrated with head coach Don Lucia and the team in general over the last season and a half. However, if the team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament in a year when they host a regional, rest assured that the level of displeasure from fans, media and boosters will reach levels not seen since Doug Woog’s final years as head coach.
Friday night’s game starts at 7 p.m. and is tape-delayed on Fox Sports North, and will air right after the Flames / Wild game which starts at 8 p.m. Saturday’s game starts an hour earlier than normal with the puck dropping at 6 p.m.
GPL writer Jeff Oftos, aka "go4hcky", is now a proud father! His wife Kristin gave birth to a baby girl named Ella on Wednesday morning. This is Jeff and Kristin's first child. Congratulations to the Oftos family!