Push Towards Conference Crown Continues For Gophers at UNO
After sweeping Bemidji State last weekend and picking up a key four points in the race for the MacNaughton Cup, the Golden Gophers will look to maintain their hold on first place in the WCHA as they head to Omaha for a critical series with the Mavericks this weekend.
With both Minnesota Duluth and Denver, the two teams closest to Minnesota in the standings, stumbling last weekend, the Gophers were able to extend their lead over both thanks to their pair of wins against the Beavers. UMD blew a two-goal third period lead in a Saturday night tie at Minnesota State, while Denver was upended by a 5-2 score on Saturday night against Wisconsin. So, the leaves the Gophers with a two point lead over UMD (Gophers hold the tiebreaker) and a four point lead over DU (Pioneers hold the tiebreaker).
If the Gophers go 3-1 over their final four games (two at Omaha this weekend and then they close the season next weekend at home vs. the Badgers) they will win the MacNaughton Cup regardless of what any other team does. UMD closes the season by hosting CC this weekend and then heading to St. Cloud State next weekend, while DU hosts North Dakota this weekend before wrapping things up in Omaha next weekend. So, the Gophers are in a great spot to win their first MacNaughton Cup since the 2006-07 season.
The sweep of the Beavers certainly helped the Gophers in the PairWise Rankings, as the team now sits in a tie for 8th with Maine. As we’ve seen over the past month or so, things can swing wildly from weekend to weekend, but as long as the Gophers don’t have any more “winless weekends,” they should certainly be in fine shape to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid and find themselves at the Xcel Energy Center as the host of the West Regional.
This weekend’s opponent, Nebraska Omaha, sits in a tie for 23rd in the PairWise Rankings, so they have their work cut out for them if they hope to make a charge up the standings. They’ve had a very up-and-down season and find themselves 14-12-6 heading into this weekend’s series against the Gophers. Most recently they went 2-1-1 on a four-game roadtrip against Michigan Tech and Colorado College.
One of the main reasons UNO is a near .500 team is their goaltending, which has been shaky all season long. Incumbent starter John Faulkner, who was very impressive as a junior last season, really had his play fall off this season. That opened the door for a pair of freshmen – Ryan Massa and Dayn Belfour – to get playing time. Massa has taken over as the team’s starter as of late and has solid numbers: 7-5-2 record, 2.35 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He should get the nod on both nights this weekend.
On the backend, their top defender is sophomore Andrej Sustr, who has 15 points in 27 games but is an imposing force out there at 6-8, 200 pounds. He’ll likely be charged with trying to contain Minnesota’s top line, and namely Nick Bjugstad. Junior Bryce Aneloski has 19 points in 32 games and is their top scorer from the point.
Up front for UNO, their top line is very dangerous. Freshman Jayson Megna (29 points) centers junior Terry Broadhurst (35 points) and sophomore Matt White (38 points). Those are UNO’s three leading scorers in terms of points and goals, so containing that line will be paramount if the Gophers hope to have success this weekend.
The team’s fourth leading scorer is a name familiar to Gopher fans, and that is Ryan Walters, who was a Gopher commit before he changed his mind and heading south to Omaha. He’s acclimated very well to the college game and after a 23-point freshman season, he’s followed that up with a solid sophomore campaign where he’s registered 10 goals and 24 points so far.
The Mavs are tied for sixth in both scoring offense and defense in league play. In terms of special teams, they are middle of the pack as well with the 8th best power play in the conference (19.4 percent) and then 4th best penalty kill (82.7). Their PK is slightly ahead of Minnesota’s, but the Gopher power play is the WCHA’s best, so Minnesota should have an edge in both special teams and goaltending this weekend, which you think would bode well.
Kent Patterson was back to his usual self last weekend after a hiccup out at Denver. Now, the Mavs are a much more explosive team than Bemidji in terms of offense, and playing on the road in a bulding he’s never played in at the college level is a lot different than being in the friendly confines of Mariucci Arena, so he’ll be put to the test this weekend and will need to make to some big saves at key times if the Gophers are to bring points back home with them.
Freshman defender Ben Marshall will likely miss this weekend’s series with a lower body injury he suffered last Saturday so look for Chris Student or Blake Thompson to get into the mix.
Considering the way UNO likes to play (i.e. not conservative), coupled with their less-than-stellar goaltending and the Gophers’ solid group of forwards, Minnesota should be able to pot some goals this weekend. Their top two lines were very good against Bemidji State so hopefully they can carry that strong play over to this weekend.
With the Badgers, who are tied for 10th place with Minnesota State, on-tap for next weekend, the Gophers will be in a great spot to take home the league title if they can take two points from UNO, which seems very reasonable.
Friday’s game is set to start at 7:30 p.m. while the Saturday rematch will get underway at 7 p.m.