Gophers Set To Host Annual Mariucci Classic
After taking the last two weeks off, the Golden Gophers get back into action this weekend by playing host to the Mariucci Classic as they welcome Niagara, Northeastern, and Princeton to town. Minnesota will play Niagara in the first round of the tournament while Northeastern and Princeton do battle on Friday, and then the winners and losers of each game will meet on Saturday.
Even though the competition – on paper – isn’t all that great, the Gophers will be far from full strength this weekend as both Nick Bjugstad (16 goals, 27 points) and Kyle Rau (12 goals, 22 points) will not be present as they are representing the United States in the World Junior Championships in Alberta. Those two are the only Gophers with double-digit goal totals, so it won’t be easy for the team to replace their offensive contributions.
So, with those two out of the mix for this weekend, the team will look to others to step up offensively. The duo of Erik Haula and Jake Hansen started off the year red-hot, but have cooled as of late. They have played on a line together most of the season, but it’s tough to tell what Head Coach Don Lucia will do with his forwards without Rau and Bjugstad, who have played together from the get-go.
Zach Budish, Taylor Matson, and Nate Condon are some other forwards who will have a chance to contribute a little bit more offensively this weekend as well, so hopefully they make the most of their chances.
The one thing the Gophers do have going for them this weekend is that their backend is 100 percent in-tact. Senior netminder Kent Patterson will play both games in all likelihood, and he’s been as good as any goalie in the country all season long. The defensive core in front of him has had their issues at times during the first half, but the group – which has just one upperclassman among them – will hopefully start to turn the corner and avoid those defensive lapses in their own end, turning the puck over, etc.
Minnesota’s opening-night opponent, Niagara, stated off the year going winless in its first five games but since then they are 5-2-4 and haven’t lost in their last six games. They played their last home game on November 15 so they are certainly used to playing away from home. Their leading scorer, sophomore Scott Arnold, has just 12 points in 16 games, so they certainly aren’t an offensive powerhouse. They are sixth in Atlantic Hockey in scoring offense and seventh in scoring defense. Their special teams are in the middle of the pack as well, so this is a team that the Gophers should be able to handle even without Rau and Bjugstad.
Should the Gophers win, they will likely take on Northeaster, who is the best of the three visiting teams. The Huskies are just 7-7-2 on the season but they, like Niagara, have rebounded nicely after a poor start that saw them go 1-7-2 to start the year. A rough start wasn’t totally surprising given that their head coach, Greg Cronin, left to be an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer. In recent weeks though, they won at Michigan and then swept Notre Dame in South Bend, so the team is certainly playing much better now than they were in the fall.
The Huskies have just one senior on the roster but 11 juniors, so they have a good mix of older and younger players. They have just two players under the age of 20 and only eight players under 6’.
Junior netminder Chris Rawlings has been very good in net, as he has a 7-6-2 record but an impressive .933 save percentage and a 2.30 goals against average.
Up front, one notable player is Vinny Saponari, who transferred to Northeastern from BU and the Gophers were rumored to be interested in landing his services. He landed at Northeastern of course and has 11 points in 16 games so far. The Huskies have four forwards with six goals, including points-leader Steve Quailer, a junior who has 16 points.
Princeton, Northeastern’s opponent on Friday afternoon, has been very solid over time but this season they are just 4-9-2, so it would be a pretty decent upset if they take down the Huskies in the tournament’s opening game.
The Gophers are certainly better this season than in past years, but the team has had issues in their holiday tournament in recent seasons. Last year, they lost to Union and tied Ferris State. In 2009-10, they beat Bowling Green but then lost to Northern Michigan. The last time they won both games was in 2008-09, they ended up beating Northeastern in the title game, so hopefully there can be a repeat of that outcome this time around.
None of the games this weekend are televised, but you can listen via 1500ESPN or watch (though not for free) at GopherSports.com.