Gophers Open WCHA Play In Duluth Against Defending Champs
After doing exactly what they needed to do in their season-opening series against Sacred Heart, the Golden Gophers open WCHA play this weekend by heading north to take on the defending NCAA Champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, who split with No. 1 ranked Notre Dame last weekend.
In outscoring the Pioneers by a combined score of 15-0 in the two games the last weekend, the Gophers took care of business against a team they should beat, which is something that they haven’t always done in recent years. See last year’s home playoff debacle against Alaska Anchorage as a prime example. So while Sacred Heart might be the worst team in the nation, Minnesota was able to get several players into the mix, rack up a bunch of points, and hopefully build some much-needed confidence heading into WCHA play.
Maybe the most impressive player last weekend for the Gophers was senior Jake Hansen, who led the way with six points and showed up at both ends of the rink, which has been a knock on him during his first three years as a Gopher. He anchored the team’s second line with sophomore center Erik Haula and freshman winger Sam Warning. That trio combined for 15 points and you’d have to assume that group will remain together heading into Friday night’s game vs. the Bulldogs.
In fact, it would be a mild surprise if any of the team’s top three lines were shuffled in any form, unless there was an injury during the games last weekend or something pops up in practice this week. The top line of Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad, and Zach Budish could be very effective on the small ice surface at AmSoil Arena due to the size of Bjugstad and Budish. Bjugstad was all over the ice last weekend and showed high-end speed to go along with his 6-5 frame. And Rau scored his first of probably many college goals.
Minnesota’s third line features a pair of speed demons in Taylor Matson and Nate Condon, along with big Seth Ambroz, a 6-3, 215 lb. freshman. Ambroz scored a pair of goals in Friday’s win and that line in general should be very tough to play against for other teams, and with Ambroz in the mix, will likely chip in the occasional goal as well and not just be a checking-type line.
Head Coach Don Lucia shuffled around his fourth line on both nights as he said he would, trying to evaluate several different players. The one constant both nights was sophomore Tom Serratore, who hit anything that moved for the other team and should carry that type of play over into this weekend’s games. Given this is a conference series against a very good UMD team, look for Lucia to give seniors Nick Larson and Nico Sacchetti the other two fourth line spots on Friday night as opposed to freshmen like Travis Boyd or Christian Isackson, who could grace the lineup on Saturday if things go haywire on Friday.
In short, the Gophers appear to have a very deep group up front and should have three lines that can score on a somewhat consistent basis.
The big question for this team will be the defense group, who were solid last weekend but again, not against the toughest of teams. Freshman Ben Marshall showed flashes of offensive brilliance, including scoring his first collegiate goal on Saturday night. He’ll be a fixture on the power play all season and while he’ll have his gaffes in the defensive end, he’ll more than make up for it by contributing offensively.
Sophomore Nate Schmidt, who didn’t play much as a freshman and was even moved to forward at times, seems re-energized and looks like a new player with a new-found confidence. Fellow sophomores Mark Alt and Justin Holl didn’t stand out too much, but that is what you’d like out of a pair of guys you expect to be solid in their own end. Junior Seth Helgeson showed the same snarl he’s displayed during his first two seasons, and his physical style of play will be important on the small ice this weekend in Duluth.
As Lucia likes to say, the speed limit will go up this weekend, and UMD’s forecheck on a small rink will be much tougher to handle than anything the Gophers saw last weekend. Will they turn the puck over at times this weekend while being pressured? You bet. But limiting those mistakes will go a long way towards how many points, if any, the Gophers bring back to Minneapolis with them on Saturday night.
In net, Kent Patterson pitched a pair of shutouts and despite the fact the completion was less than stellar, he had to make a handful of big saves each night on point-blank chances, breakaways, etc. He’ll be put to the test more this weekend of course, but it’s unlikely that Patterson will be a key reason the team falters, if they do at all, against the Bulldogs.
For UMD in net, both Kenny Reiter and Aaron Crandall saw action in last weekend’s split against the Irish, with Reiter getting the victory on Friday night, and Crandall taking it on the chin on Saturday. Given the fact Reiter won the team a national title last spring and these are conference games, it’s almost a guarantee he’ll get the nod on both nights barring a meltdown in the first contest.
Reiter, as previously noted, has a NCAA title to his credit, but the Gophers should have the edge in net this weekend with Patterson, who had a better goals against average and save percentage than either UMD goalie a season ago.
One of the main reasons UMD had so much success in 2010-11 was the fact they had two big-time scoring lines with guys who had played together for several seasons. That is no longer the case. Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine, who combined for 112 points last season, have both moved on. They also lost Kyle Schmidt, who netted 22 points and scored the game-winning goal in the NCAA title game against Michigan.
Against Notre Dame, the team’s top line featured senior and Hobey Baker candidate Jack Connolly, who led the team with 59 points a season ago, centering sophomore JT Brown, who was the Frozen Four MVP, and senior Mike Seidel, who scored three goals in two games against the Irish. After that top group, senior Travis Oleksuk centers the second line, and then there are a bunch of young guys or unknowns who could step up or evolve into high-end players, but to this point haven’t shown much in the way of being offensive threats.
This could work to the Gophers advantage this weekend in that they should be able to play four lines and not have a big drop-off one through three, where the same cannot be said for UMD. Now the Gophers don’t have a game-breaker like Connolly, so containing him and that top unit will be easier said than done.
On the blueline for the Dogs, gone is standout freshman Justin Faulk, who had 33 points in 39 games a season ago. He signed with Carolina after last season and leaves a big hole in their lineup in terms of generating offense from the backend. Seniors Mike Montgomery and Trent Palm also moved on from last season, so the defense core will have a new look for UMD this weekend. Senior Brady Lamb and juniors Wade Bergman and Drew Olson are they key pieces for UMD, so they do have some experience back there but nobody as dynamic as Faulk.
One of the biggest aspects to this weekend’s games, as always it seems, will be special teams. A year ago, UMD had the WCHA’s No. 2 ranked power play, while the Gophers countered with the league’s third-worst penalty kill. If that trend continues into this year and this weekend in particular, that could quickly neutralize some potential advantages the Gophers may have. UMD scored three times with the man-advantage last weekend, who while they lost some key components to their offensive attack, it looks as though their power play is rolling right along.
In general, this should be a great series between two rivals both looking to prove a point: Minnesota wants to show things have changed from the previous few seasons, and the Bulldogs want to show that last season wasn’t a fluke and that they will continue to be the top team in the state. Barring a playoff matchup, it will be the only two meetings of the season between these two clubs.
Both games will air live on FSN, though Saturday’s game will be on an alternate channel due to the Red Wings-Wild game airing on the normal FSN feed. On DIRECTV, the Gophers will air live on channel 675-1 at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Check the GPL homepage for more info as this week plays out.