Gophers, Irish Set To Square Off Saturday
After a disappointing Mariucci Classic last weekend, the Golden Gophers will play their final non-conference game of the season this Saturday when they host Notre Dame in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game.
With the win vs. Niagara and then the penalty-filled loss to Northeastern last weekend, the Gophers now find themselves 4-3-1 in non-conference play, which could cost them when the NCAA Tournament rolls around. Because of that, this weekend’s matchup vs. the Irish is all that much more important, both from a non-conference standpoint and a “get momentum going back into WCHA play” point of view as well.
After sweeping North Dakota on Nov. 4-5, the Gophers were 9-1-0 on the season, but since then they are just 6-5-1. The power play has dropped off considerably, Kent Patterson has looked human more often than not, and the defense is still making those head-scratching mistakes that you hoped would dissipate as the season wore on.
So while the team is still in great shape when it comes to the WCHA standings and making the NCAA Tournament, the second-half schedule is very difficult and the next few weekends could be very telling in terms of what this team’s ceiling is.
One big boon for the Maroon and Gold this Saturday will be the return of Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, who rejoin the team after missing last weekend’s games while playing for the U.S. in the World Junior Championships. Their absence was certainly felt in the 3-2 loss to Northeastern and adding two elite forwards back to the mix.
Notre Dame came into this season as the preseason No. 1, and for the most part they have lived up to the hype. They are 12-6-3 and are coming off a 5-2 win over BU on New Year’s Eve. Prior to that victory, they split a home-and-home series with Ferris State before the holiday break. Northeastern, who of course beat Minnesota a weekend ago, took it to the Irish on Dec. 2-3, beating them by a combined score of 11-3 in a pair of wins in South Bend.
The Irish started the year by splitting a pair of games in Duluth against the Bulldogs, losing 4-3 on Friday and winning 5-3 on Saturday. They started the season going 10-2-3 before a four-game losing streak put a damper on things.
Up front they are led by T.J. Tynan, who like Bjugstad and Rau was a member of the U.S. World Junior team. He has 27 points in 20 games as a sophomore, which comes on the heels of his monster freshman campaign where he put up 23 goals and 54 points. He centers their top line along side former Edina star and fellow sophomore Anders Less, who is their second-leading scorer behind Tynan. Lee is their only double-digit goal scorer with 14, and has 22 points on the season.
On the backend, freshman Robbie Russo leads their defensemen in scoring with 11 points in 21 games. Others to keep an eye on include senior Sean Lorenz and junior Sam Calabrese, who have emerged as very good players in their own end after both being highly sought-after recruits. Sophomore Stepthen Johns fits that bill as well.
In goal, junior Mike Johnson has carried the mail for Jeff Jackson’s team, though his numbers are very comparable to sophomore Steven Summerhays’. Johnson is 7-5-3 on the season with a .889 save percentage and a 2.59 goals against average. Summerhays is 5-1-0 with a .890 save percentage and a 2.65 goals against average. Look for Johnson to be in net on Saturday night, but either way, the Gophers will have the edge in net with Patterson.
They, like Minnesota, are a young team. They have four seniors and five juniors, so there will be plenty of youth on display when these teams hit the ice Saturday night. The Irish have ten NHL-drafted players while the Gophers have 16.
Notre Dame has a lot of skill, so it’s not surprising they have the No. 1 power play in the CCHA at 20.8 percent. Their penalty kill is seventh in the league at 83.3 percent. They have allowed just six third period goals in league play, so the Gophers – who have been strongest in the third period all season – will look to buck that trend.
For Minnesota, they need to reestablish the offensive depth that was such a strength of theirs early in the season. Getting Bjugstad and Rau back into the mix will help that, but the second and third lines need to play better five-on-five and chip in more goals if this team is going to get back to playing like one of the top teams in the nation.
With a trip to Grand Forks on the horizon for next weekend, it’s important for the team to get a win this weekend and build some momentum, since you can bet the Sioux will be anxious to get another crack at Minnesota after the Gophers swept them at Mariucci.
Saturday game vs. the Irish starts at 7 p.m. and will air live on the Big Ten Network.