Gophers Look To Rebound After Sweep vs. SCSU
To say the Gophers WCHA season-opening sweep at the hands of Nebraska-Omaha was disappointing is an understatement, but they will look to get back in the win column this weekend as they play host to St. Cloud State in a pair of games at Mariucci Arena on Friday and Sunday.
In both losses last weekend to head coach Dean Blais and the Mavericks, the Gophers were down by several goals each night, which needless to say is not a recipe for success. On Friday night, as upperclassmen admitted after the game, Minnesota was not ready to play, and it showed as the Mavs went into the locker room with a 3-0 lead after the first period and outshot the Gophers by a 20-6 margin. The next six penalties went against UNO, including a five minute major and a two minute minor during said major, and the Gophers were able to climb back into the game and actually tie it up late. But as has often been the case so far this season, the defense made a huge error and it cost the team the game, as UNO was able to score the winning goal with less than two minutes left and won 5-4.
On Saturday, the Gophers again got buried as they were down 3-0 heading into the third period. They again staged a bit of a comeback and cut the lead to 3-2 late, but an empty-net goal sealed the deal for UNO, who outshot the Gophers by a 48-31 margin.
The defense has been the major issue this season, and that’s not a shock considering that four of the eight are freshman. But many of the mistakes haven’t been being made by first-year players, but rather by juniors and seniors like Kevin Wehrs and Cade Fairchild. Those players haven’t contributed enough offense in their careers to offset the major defensive lapses that seem to occur on a nightly basis. The late-summer loss of Nick Leddy to the Chicago Blackhawks has really been amplified since it appears, at least early in the season, the returning defensemen haven’t taken a big enough step to offset his loss.
Up front, the team is averaging four goals a game and generating a fair amount of chances. The top line of Mike Hoeffel, Erik Haula, and Jay Barriball comprises the team’s three leading scorers, as they trio has combined for eight goals and 18 total points. Should that group stay together all year and remain healthy, they can do some serious damage and could all be point-per-game players, which the Gophers had none of a season ago when they averaged 2.86 goals per game.
Offense has, surprisingly, been an issue for St. Cloud State through their first two weeks. SCSU has scored just 10 goals through four games though two of them were last weekend against Miami, who is the No. 3 team in the nation with two of college hockey’s best goalies. Still though, the Huskies were picked to finish second in the WCHA this season by in the coaches’ poll largely due to their depth up front.
Gone from last season is Ryan Lasch, who finishes his four years in St. Cloud with an astonishing 183 points. The Huskies are also missing sophomore David Eddy, who really came on strong for them a season ago and finished with 12 goals and 23 points, both excellent numbers for a freshman. He is suspended for the first half of this season due to academic issues.
However, even without those two at their disposal, the Huskies have a very formidable group of forwards. Aside from senior Garrett Roe, who has 145 career points, there isn’t another “big gun” at this point for the Huskies, but rather a balanced group that makes it so you can’t really key on any one line.
Junior Drew LeBlanc is leading the way with four points right now, and he had 31 a season ago, so he seems poised for a possible breakout year. Sophomore Ben Hanowski came to SCSU with much fan-fare after a stellar career for Little Falls, and he’s looking to build on a 19-point freshman season. Senior captain Aaron Marvin is a big body up the middle that is solid in both ends of the ice. Fresh off another arrest this past summer, senior Tony Mosey had 40+ points a season ago and should be a point-per-game player this season.
The loss of Lasch is obviously huge, but a case could be made that the Huskies could miss Garrett Raboin even more. He was SCSU’s top defenseman for several seasons, played in every key situation, and quarterbacked their power play. The blueline has arguably been the main reason why SCSU has never been able to establish itself as an elite program, and losing a player of Raboin’s caliber will be tough to replace.
A pair of highly-touted freshmen – Nick Jensen, who has three points in four games already this season, and Kevin Gravel – come to the team from the USHL and will both play big minutes right away. Junior Oliver Lauridsen made great strides a season ago after a rocky freshman season and will be a force on the penalty kill.
The backbone of the Huskies team though could be in net, where they have easily the top netminder duo in the WCHA in senior Dan Dunn and sophomore Mike Lee. The duo split time last season and were pretty much the same goalie for different reasons, but in the NCAA Tournament last March, it was Lee who made 42 saves against Northern Michigan and helped SCSU win its first ever NCAA game. That being said, he was pulled the next night in a 5-3 loss to Wisconsin.
Both goalies have been lit up to a degree early this season though. After a season-opening 3-1 win over RIT in which Lee played, he was yanked last Friday after allowing six goals to Miami. Dunn, meanwhile, gave up four goals in the second period to Clarkson before being pulled in a 6-2 loss, but then rebounded last Saturday vs. Miami in holding them to one goal on 39 shots in a 1-1 tie.
One would have to think that Dunn would get the nod on Friday night at Mariucci against the Gophers after his great play vs. Miami.
After going 0-6 against the Gophers during the 2008-09 season, the Huskies rebounded to win their only two games against Minnesota a season ago, which were both at Mariucci Arena. That sweep was the start of a season-ending 7-9-0 stretch for the Gophers that sealed their fate as a non-NCAA Tournament team for the second year in a row.
Given the shaky goaltending play for SCSU and the Gophers porous defense, combined with the deep groups of forwards for both teams, there could be some fireworks in this series in terms of goal-scoring. SCSU probably has better depth, where as the Gophers high-end guys are better.
The difference in the series could come on the blueline, where the Huskies have more muscle. Lauridsen (6-6, 230 lbs), Jensen (6-1, 195 lbs.), senior Chris Hepp (6-1, 200 lbs.), and senior Brett Barta (6-1, 195 lbs.) all possess good size and of course three of them are upperclassmen. The Gophers have upperclassmen as well, but guys like Aaron Ness (5-10, 170 lbs), Fairchild (5-11, 180 lbs.), and Wehrs (5-9, 175 lbs.) don’t have the physical stature that SCSU’s core does. After sophomore Seth Helgeson, who is 6-5, 220 lbs., there is a huge drop-off for the Gophers, both in terms of size and defensive attitude.
The Huskies, and each team that plays the Gophers moving forward, are going to likely copy UNO’s strategy of pressuring the Gophers defensemen into turnovers. And SCSU has the speed and size up front to do just that.
Friday night’s game starts at 7, while the Sunday game (it was pushed to Sunday to the President visiting the U of M on Saturday) gets started at 2 p.m. Despite the fact they are playing a rival, look for the atmosphere in the building to be less than stellar, as is usually the case with afternoon games in Dinkytown.