Gophers Sweep Seawolves, Welcome Sioux to Town This Weekend
The Golden Gophers returned home from The Last Frontier on Sunday with four points thanks to a pair of victories over the Alaska Anchorage Seawolves, and now turn their attention to their biggest rival: the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, who make their first trip to Mariucci Arena this weekend since January of 2010.
Regardless of how good the Gophers may or may not end up being this season, it’s never an easy task to head to Anchorage and win both games. Between the travel , dismal atmosphere at the games, and UAA’s defensive-minded style of play, teams often struggled even if they – on paper – are a much better team than the Seawolves, so credit the Gophers for getting the job done.
They scored the first goal on both nights which is key against a low-scoring team like UAA. On Friday night, Kent Patterson recorded his fourth shutout of the season and the team scored a pair of power play goals. On Saturday, Zach Budish gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead midway through the first period, and then a pair of shorthanded goals by Nate Condon and Kyle Rau paved the way for a 3-1 victory.
Now, the Gophers will play their first WCHA homes games of the young season as they host the Fighting Sioux this weekend. As expected, the Sioux are off to a slow start, as they bring a 3-4-1 record with them to Minneapolis. Last year’s Sioux team was the best in the nation from start to finish but of course they were upset by Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinals. Gone are the likes of Matt Frattin, Evan Trupp, Jason Gregoire, Brad Malone, and Brett Hextall up front, and from the backend, seniors Chay Genoway, Jake Marto, and Derrick LaPoint moved on as well.
Though it hasn’t been the case up to this point, the Sioux figured to rely on their backend to carry the way for them this season with so many young guys up front. Senior Ben Blood might be the best defenseman in the WCHA, while junior Andrew MacWilliam is as tough as they come. Sophomore Derek Forbort had a solid but unspectacular first year, but he figures to really make a jump this season with more icetime and power play time. Fellow sophomore Dillon Simpson was the youngest player in college hockey last season but, like Forbort, should emerge this season with more playing time.
In net, junior Aaron Dell was one of the best goalies in the WCHA last season after taking the starting gig away from now-senior Brad Eidsness. Both have saw time early this season but both have save percentages under 90 percent and goals against averages over 3.30. Now, the Sioux have had a pretty tough schedule so far: vs. Air Force, vs. Boston College, two games vs. Maine, two games at Wisconsin, and two games vs. St. Cloud State. But the fact is that their backend has yet to live up to the hype.
Up front, head coach Dave Hakstol has loaded up his top line with his three best forwards: junior Corban Knight centering sophomore Brock Nelson and junior Danny Kristo. Those three are the team’s top scorers, having combined for 12 goals; the rest of the team has scored ten. That line is going to get their chances this weekend, but the key is to not let them take over the game like they have the chance to do.
Past those three, no Sioux forward is off to a good start. Preseason Rookie of the Year Rocco Grimaldi has battled an injury this year and has played in just three games. Colton St. Clair, another highly-touted first year player, has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA and won’t play this season. Now, chances are that some of the young Sioux forwards who have underachieves so far will get going eventually, but it’s up to the Gophers to not let that happen this weekend.
The Sioux have scored just 2.75 goals per game on the season, while they have allowed 3.5. Their power play is clicking at 20.5 percent, which is solid but unspectacular. UND’s penalty kill is at 78.1, so again, just okay.
The bottomline is this for the Gophers: this is not a great Sioux team and this is a great chance for the Gophers to pay them back for all the beatdowns UND has handed them the last few seasons and prove that this team is for real despite their somewhat soft schedule up to this point.
Minnesota has three very solid lines right now. They are scoring 5.38 goals per game. Their power play is at 35.9 percent, which is unheard of. They’ve allowed just 1.75 goals per game. Their penalty kill is at 87.5 percent and they’ve scored a pair of shorthanded goals.
Minnesota’s depth up front might be their biggest edge this weekend. Erik Haula has an amazing 17 points in eight games. Freshman Kyle Rau is tied for the team-lead in goals with seven. Sophomore Nick Bjugstad has 12 points in eight games. Condon has four goals. Their depth right now is the best it’s been in years and hopefully that shines through this weekend and down the road.
One area where the Sioux have owned the Gophers over the years has been in the faceoff circle. Knight will be very tough to win draws against as he may be the best in the country at taking draws. But the Gophers cannot lose 60-70 percent of the draws like they have in so many games vs. UND over the last five years. With Haula, Bjugstad, and Taylor Matson up the middle, the team is better equipped to do just that than they were in the past.
In net, Kent Patterson is playing much better than either Dell or Eidsness right now but those two are both good goalies that should give the Sioux a chance both nights. UND has the clear edge on the blueline though we’ve seen in past years some of their bigger guys back there tend to struggle on the big ice against the fast Gopher forwards.
That may be the biggest challenge for UND: they cannot get into penalty trouble with the way Minnesota’s power play is going right now or it’s going to be a long weekend for the Sioux. Now, history would suggest that staying out of the box is going to be a tall task for North Dakota.
The two teams split in North Dakota last year but since the 2006-07 season, the Gophers are 5-11-3 against the Sioux. This presents a great chance to reverse that trend a little bit against a Sioux team that is down where as the Gophers are clearly on the way up at this point.
Friday’s game gets underway at 7 p.m. on FSN, while the Saturday rematch is on Big Ten Network at 7:30 p.m.