Gophers Kickoff Non-Conference Schedule With Bemidji State
Coming off a successful road split in Madison against the Wisconsin Badgers, the Golden Gophers will look to put another off-ice distraction behind them as they heading into a key non-conference series against the Bemidji State Beavers this weekend at Mariucci Arena.
On the heels of the two-point weekend against Wisconsin, sophomore defenseman Sam Lofquist quit the team on Monday and will head to the Ontario Hockey League to continue his career. The loss leaves Minnesota with just six healthy defenseman, as freshman Nick Leddy continues to recuperate from a broken jaw and is aiming for a late-November return.
Lofquist, who played in 35 of 37 games as a freshman, wasn’t a superstar by any means, but his loss leaves the team very thin on the blueline, but more than that, it’s the fourth year in a row where a player has left the team during the season, which is a very disturbing trend. Last season, freshman Michael Dorr and Grant Scott both left midway through the season, with Scott going back to juniors while Dorr transferred to Minnesota State. In 2007-08, the most notable in-season departure took place with sophomore Kyle Okposo bolting for the AHL in December. Finally, in 2006-07, senior Tyler Hirsch was essentially kicked off the team after the Mariucci Classic.
On the positive side, the team is certainly used to dealing with things like this, which will hopefully help them focus in on Bemidji State. The Beavers are undefeated at a mark of 7-0-1 and come in as the No. 7 team in the nation according to USCHO.com Division I Men's Poll. The Gophers are unranked in the same poll.
Bemidji State’s program has been gradually trending in the right direction over the last several years, but really made its mark last season when they advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four after upsetting Notre Dame and Cornell in the Midwest Regional before succumbing to Miami in a Frozen Four Semifinal contest.
Up front, the Beavers are led by junior forward Matt Read, who is one of the nation’s leading scorers with 14 points in eight games. Recently, he has centered a line between freshman Jordan George (nine points) and fellow junior Ian Lowe (three goals). Sophomore defenseman Brad Hunt, who had an amazing 32 points as a freshman last season, has picked up where he led off as the British Columbia native already has nine points this season.
Sophomore goalie Dan Bakala has started seven of the Beavers eight games this season and figures to get the nod in both games this weekend in Minneapolis. He didn’t play at all last season, but with both of BSU’s netminders from last season having moved on, he has stepped in and performed at a high level. He is currently 6-0-1 with a goals against average of 1.40 and a save percentage nearing 95 percent. BSU’s scoring defense is No. 1 in the nation right now as they are allowing just 1.25 goals per game, so they will certainly post a tough test for the less-than-potent Minnesota offense.
They also have the nation’s fourth best penalty kill at 90 percent.
As is usually the case, the Beavers roster features mainly kids from Canada and Minnesota. Of the 26 players on roster – including just one NHL drafted player in the form of senior defenseman Chris Peluso – 14 players come from north of the border while the eight hail from the State of Hockey. The team also has to North Dakotans, one Wisconsinite, and junior Emil Billberg from Sweden.
The Beavers, who will join the WCHA next season along with Nebraska-Omaha, started off the season with an impressive sweep of Air Force in Bemidji, and followed that up by winning and tying a pair of games at Northern Michigan against the Wildcats. They then go into conference play and swept both Alabama-Huntsville and most recently Robert Morris.
None of those teams have the talent level of the Gophers however, though that level is certainly not what it once was, and rest assured nobody in the BSU locker-room is going to be intimidated by stepping onto the ice at Mariucci Arena this weekend.
The Gophers have won three of their last four games and seem to be playing better after a 0-3-1 start to the season against North Dakota and Denver. Last weekend against the Badgers, Minnesota got off to a very poor start on Friday night, allowing UW to take the lead just 24 seconds into the game. The Gophers had just 18 shots but actually were down by just a goal late in the game before ‘Sconnie tacked on a late goal to win 4-2.
Saturday night was a different story, as the Gophers scored two goals in the first seven minutes to take a 2-0 lead. Junior goalie Alex Kangas, who was shaky in Friday night’s loss, was very good in this game, as he turned away 45 Badger shots in the 5-2 win.
Offensively, senior captain Tony Lucia again carried the mail for Minnesota, as he had four points on the weekend. He assisted on one of Zach Budish’s two goals on Saturday, as those two teamed with Patrick White to form a very solid second line. White, like Budish, had a two-goal weekend. Minnesota was forced to shuffle its lines right before game-time thanks to Mike Hoeffel having an allergic reaction before the game that forced him out of the lineup.
These are Minnesota’s only two games against a College Hockey America opponent this season, so from a PairWise Rankings/ making the NCAA Tournament perspective, they are very critical contests.
Aside from that though, Minnesota cannot afford to lay an egg at home against the Beavers. Yes, BSU is a much-improved team, but given the direction the Gopher program has been heading in recent years, coupled with the off-the-ice issues that seemingly plague the team every few months, a sweep by the Beavers could really bring out the boo-birds at Mariucci and make Head Coach Don Lucia’s seat that much hotter than it already is in the eyes of alumni, boosters, and fans.
Saturday’s series-opening game will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, with the rematch coming at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Both games will air live on Fox Sports North.