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Gophers Hope To Reverse Fortunes vs. Pioneers

Gophers Hope To Reverse Fortunes vs. Pioneers

The Gophers will look to build on their recent sweep of St. Cloud State as they get back in action this weekend by taking on the WCHA preseason favorite Denver Pioneers this weekend.

Minnesota was off last weekend but they carry a three-game winning streak into this big series against the Pioneers, who had a five-game winning streak of their own snapped last weekend against Colorado College, who beat Denver on Friday night and then the two teams skated to a 2-2 tie on Saturday.

Much like St. Cloud State, the Pioneers have had their season derailed a bit by injuries, and specifically a knee injury that freshman goalie Sam Brittain suffered late last season that wasn’t addressed until this summer. He missed the team’s first 20-plus games but has returned and played one game each of the last two weekends. He could very well get the nod both nights this weekend, and that would be a huge boost the Pioneers if he does in fact start each game of the series.

The strength of Denver’s team though is up front. They are led by super sophomore (and Wild draftee) Jason Zucker (33 points) and junior Drew Shore (40 points). Drew’s younger brother, Nick, has 24 points as well. Drew and Nick are the team’s top two centermen so they play on different lines, but containing Zucker will be a key for the Gophers this weekend.

On the backend, freshman blueline Joey LaLeggia has been very impressive with 29 points in 28 games. He was one of the BCHL’s highest scoring defensemen last season for Penticton, so hopefully Gopher recruit Mike Reilly – who is that league’s highest scoring defenseman this season – has similar success for the Maroon and Gold this fall. Seniors John Lee and John Ryder are tough veterans to play against, so the Pios have a good mix of defenders that will make life tough on Minnesota.

The Gophers have had their issues with Denver under head coach Don Lucia, as they are just 2-11-1 in their last 14 games against the Pioneers, and have just one win in their last six on the road vs. DU. One of the main reasons for these struggles has been that – generally – DU has had a better goalie than the Gophers, dating back to the days of Marc Cheverie and Peter Mannino.

However, even if Brittain is back for both games this weekend, Minnesota has the edge between the pipes thanks to Kent Patterson, who is second in the WCHA in save percentage and first in goals against average. He, along with Minnesota’s defenders, have been steady all season long, as the Gophers currently rank second in the country in scoring defense at 2.03 goals per game.

Scoring has been a bit of an issue for the Gophers in recent weeks, but they carried the play for 95 percent of the time against a St. Cloud State team that has been pretty solid over the last six weeks despite their ever-growing list of injuries. In the sweep of SCSU, Erik Haula and Jake Hansen showed up on the scoresheet both nights which is hopefully a harbinger of things to come for that duo who started the season on fire but have cooled off as of late.

Nick Bjugstad leads the team with 21 goals and 33 points and is a guy you can count on each night. Kyle Rau is still second on the team with 13 goals but he hasn’t been the same player since early December. He might be a bit worn down after playing in high school last season and also taking part in the World Junior Championships over the holidays. If he can regain his scoring tough, this team should have no issues scoring the rest of the way.

As always, special teams will likely factor heavily into this weekend’s games. DU leads the WCHA with a power play going along at a 23.2 percent clip; the Gophers are third at 23 percent, so not much difference there. Minnesota’s penalty killing is third in the league at 84.3 percent while DU comes in seventh at 78.7 percent, so it would appear the Gophers have the leg-up in both goaltending and special teams, which should bode well for them this weekend.

Big-picture wise, the Gophers have improved their PairWise Ranking and now sit in a tie for seventh, though that can’t change a lot on any given weekend at this point in the season. From a WCHA point of view, Minnesota is three points clear of UMD for first place, and is five up on CC and six up on DU. With a soft schedule the rest of the way after this weekend, the Gophers will be in great shape to secure a top-two finish if they can get a pair of points from Denver this weekend.

Friday's game starts at 9 p.m. CT and will air live on FSN Plus and the NBC Sports Network with TSN's Gord Miller calling the action. Saturday's game is only on FSN Plus and starts at 8 p.m. CT.

Written by: Cardinal on Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

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