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Rivalry Stretch Continues With Series vs. Huskies

Rivalry Stretch Continues With Series vs. Huskies

The Gophers were able to earn a solid road-split last weekend against the Wisconsin Badgers and continue their run of playing three of their top rivals all in a row this weekend via a home-and-home series with the St. Cloud State Huskies.

For the first time all season last Friday, the Gophers played a totally flat game en route to a 3-1 loss to the Badgers. Jake Hansen scored the team’s lone goal late in the third period but they had little to spark or jump all night long, which wasn’t a huge shock in retrospect given the fact the squad was coming off an emotionally-charged sweep of North Dakota the weekend before.

Head coach Don Lucia called his team out after the game and they responded very well on Saturday night, winning 4-1 and getting two points on the weekend. The game was tied 1-1 heading into the third period but the Gophers were outshooting the Badgers by a 20-9 margin. That being said, the Gophers played maybe their most complete period of the season to close out the series, outshooting UW 13-5 and scoring three goals, including tallies by third-liners Taylor Matson and Nate Condon. Lucia was critical of this third line as the trio (Matson, Condon, and Seth Ambroz) had not scored much in recent weeks, but they came through big-time in Saturday’s victory.

After the dust settled on the weekend, the Gophers still find themselves on top of the WCHA with a 7-1-0 league record, good for 14 points, three clear of both Minnesota Duluth and Nebraska Omaha. Plus, six of Minnesota’s first eight league games have been on the road. All in all, Lucia and Co. couldn’t be much happier with how things have gone so far.

That road theme will continue over the next few weekends as the Gophers will play three of their next four games away from Mariucci Arena, including Friday night’s series-opener against the St. Cloud State Huskies. The Saturday rematch will be in a Minneapolis in this home-and-home series.

It’s been a very up-and-down season for the Huskies, who find themselves with a 5-5-2 record at this point. They lost three of their first four games, though all of those were away from the National Hockey Center (in Alaska for a non-conference tournament and then two games at Northern Michigan). Since then, they’ve taken three out of four points from New Hampshire at home, split at North Dakota, and then won and tied at home vs. the Badgers. Most recently, they split at Minnesota State, losing 4-2 on Friday but then winning 3-2 on Saturday.

The biggest storyline for SCSU, unfortunately, has been injuries. Senior captain Drew LeBlanc, who had 12 points after ten games this season after being the team’s leading scorer in 2010-11, will miss most if not all of the remainder of the season due to a leg injury suffered against Wisconsin a few weeks ago. Additionally, junior netminder Mike Lee, who was off to a so-so start but figured to be one of the better goalies in the WCHA this season, is likely out for the season after having surgery on “a lower body injury."

Those are obviously a pair of huge blows to a St. Cloud team pegged to finish in the middle of the WCHA standings. LeBlanc has only been gone a short time, so it’s tough to tell how the team will replace him, but in net, freshman Ryan Faragher has been very solid in replacing Lee. His SCSU career got started with a 4-0 shutout victory at North Dakota, and overall he’s posted a 3-3-1 record with a .925 save percentage and a 2.43 goals against average.

On defense, a pair of sophomores – Nick Jensen and Kevin Gravel – lead the way for the Huskies. They are both NHL drafted and the pair could be pillars on the blueline for SCSU for years to come. Freshman Andrew Prochno from Minnetonka is off to a nice start with six points in 11 games.

The loss of LeBlanc is no-doubt a huge one, but they Huskies are, like the Gophers, a pretty deep team up front. Junior Ben Hanowski leads the way with 13 points, including seven goals. Fellow Little Falls native Jared Festler has six goals, while sophomore Cam Reid is following up his solid freshman campaign (29 points) with a hot start to his second season (11 points in 12 games). Junior David Eddy, who had his career derailed to a degree by being suspended last season but is still a guy to watch out for, has six points. So while the loss of LeBlanc is tough, it’s not as devastating as it could be due to their depth up at forward.

The Gopher power play, which has struggled in recent weeks (one goal in its last 21 attempts) after being on-fire early in the season, will go against a SCSU penalty kill which is fourth in the WCHA. SCSU’s power play, meanwhile, is second-to-last in league play at just 9.5 percent. The Gophers’ penalty kill still tanks atop the league at 88.6 percent, so it would appear the Gophers have the edge when it ocmes to special teams this weekend.

Despite Faragher’s strong play, Kent Patterson also gives the Gophers the edge between the pipes. The senior has been a rock all season long, and he played very well in Madison as well, making some key saves on Saturday in particular when the game was still very much in doubt despite his team’s advantage in play, shots, etc.

The Gophers are half-way through arguably their toughest stretch of the season, with series against UND and UW in the rearview mirror, and four games against St. Cloud and then Michigan State in the coming weeks. After this stretch, they wrap-up the first half of the season with four very winnable games at Mariucci Arena against Minnesota State and Michigan Tech before their holiday break. A sweep this weekend would be huge for their WCHA hopes, but Friday night will be tough, as the Huskies and their rabid fan base will be ready, and the National Hockey Center is never as easy place to go into, especially being the Huskies’ top rival. If the Gophers can get through the first ten minutes or so and weather the storm, they’ll be in great shape to take home three or more points this weekend.

Friday’s game gets underway at 7:30 p.m., while the Saturday rematch starts at 7. Both games will air on FSN, though the Saturday game will air on an alternate channel. For full info on that, go here:

Written by: Cardinal on Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

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