Gophers Return to WCHA Play vs. High-Scoring Bulldogs
Coming off a disappointment split against the Bemidji State Beavers, the Golden Gophers get back into WCHA play this weekend by taking on another in-state rival in the form of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who return to the place where their brilliant late-season run from a season ago ended in the NCAA West Regional final against Miami.
Prior to the Sunday night 6-2 meltdown against the Beavers, it appeared as though things were heading in the right direction for Minnesota. They had won four of their previous five games, the right names were showing up on the scoresheet, and the goaltending of junior Alex Kangas was well above average. And though the Gophers outchanced the Beavers on Sunday night, Minnesota was unable to finish, and that’s been a common occurrence for this program for several years now.
Sophomore Jake Hansen scored a meaningless power play goal late in the game on Saturday via a tip-in, but it’s becoming clear that a core group of players on this team that were recruiting to score goals and be offensive threats at the college level aren’t going to be able to fulfill said roles. Hansen is a prime example of a kid that scored all the way up through high school and junior hockey, was highly thought of by NHL teams and drafted accordingly, but then has fallen flat at the U.
Fellow sophomore Nico Sacchetti (10 points in 45 games), junior Patrick White(32 points in 91 games), and senior Mike Carman (50 points in 106 games) are all kids who have the same “pre-Gopher” resume as Hansen but have yet to contribute. Sacchetti has recently found himself playing on a line with Mike Hoeffel and Jordan Schroeder, so hopefully he benefits from playing alongside two of the Gophers better forwards. White, meanwhile, has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, as he had a four-game point streak snapped as he went pointless against Bemidji State.
On defense, the losses of Nick Leddy to a head injury and Sam Lofquist to the Ontario Hockey League have left the team with just six healthy blueliners for the foreseeable future. Senior David Fischer continues to be a border-line train wreck on a nightly basis. He has just two points in ten games after seeing time on the power play before he was removed from the second unit on Sunday night vs. Bemidji after a horrendous turnover led directly to BSU’s first goal. He’s tied for a team-worst minus four and has zero confidence with or without the puck. Fellow junior Kevin Wehrs play has been better this season, but his seven penalties leave him only behind Carman in that department. Freshman Seth Helgeson leads the team with a plus five rating and hasn’t been noticeable too often, which is what you’d like out of a defense-first player.
For the second year in a row, it appears as though Head Coach Don Lucia is botching the goaltending situation. Prior to the season, Lucia admitted that he should have played Kent Patterson more often during the 2008-09 season when Alex Kangas struggled and was pulled on several occasions in favor of Patterson, who was a fourth round pick by the Avalanche in 2007. So, Lucia said that Patterson would play more this season and started the year off by having Kangas start Friday nights and giving Patterson the nod on Saturday. Kangas, who went 0-2 over that stretch, had slightly better numbers than Patterson, who went 0-1-1, has started the last six games and played reasonably well, with only his hiccup coming in the first game against Wisconsin where he let in a pair of soft goals in the 4-2 loss.
Regardless, Patterson seemingly did nothing to lose his spot in the rotation. Lucia pulled Kangas in the Sunday night loss to BSU after he allowed two goals on four shots, with neither goal being any fault of his. Patterson was put into a game in a though spot and didn’t respond well in allowing four goals before Kangas was put back into the game.
Moving forward, it would appear that Kangas is the clear No. 1 as Patterson must be pretty fried mentally after his experience at the U so far, despite not really being put in a position to succeed.
Now, Minnesota turns their attention to the Bulldogs, who are 4-3-1 in WCHA play and sit in a three-way tie for third place in the league with nine points, two ahead of Minnesota who has also played eight conference games.
UMD is coming off a home split against Michigan Tech where they put an amazing 98 shots on goal in the two games. Michigan Tech freshman goalie Kevin Genoe put on a show on Friday night in making 48 saves in the 3-2 win. The Bulldogs high-powered offense was able to crack Genoe early and often in the Saturday night rematch, as he was chased from the game early in the second period after allowing three goals, and UMD went on to put up a snowman in the 8-1 win.
Prior to their split against MTU, the Bulldogs went out to Colorado Springs and split with the first place Colorado College Tigers. They also have a home sweep of Clarkson, a loss and a tie at St. Cloud State, a home sweep of Minnesota State, and a win and a loss at home against Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan, respectively.
The Bulldogs top four scorers all have more points than Minnesota’s top scorer. Junior Justin Fontaine (11 G, 7 A), sophomore Jack Connolly (7 G, 11 A), junior Rob Bordson (3 G, 14 A) and sophomore Mike Connolly (5 G, 8 A) are four of the highest-scoring forwards in the country and it will be a tough task for Minnesota’s defense to contain that group this weekend. Last week against Tech, the Connolly’s (not related) played on a line with Cody Danberg, while Fontaine and Bordson played the wing on a line centered by Travis Oleksuk.
In WCHA play, UMD is averaging 3.62 goals per game to Minnesota’s 2.38, thanks in large part to its power play, which is clicking at an impressive 32.7 percent of the time compared to Minnesota’s league-worst power play (5.7 percent). Prior to Sunday’s game against Bemidji, the Gophers had killed off 24 of their previous 25 penalties, though the Beavers scored a pair of goals while on the man-advantage on Sunday. Minnesota must stay out of the penalty box this weekend if they hope to emerge from the series with points.
The Bulldogs lost a pair of key players off last year’s team in the form of senior captain MacGregor Sharp, who led them in scoring a year ago, but more importantly than Sharp was the departure of junior Alex Stalock, who was the top goalie in the WCHA a year ago. He was red-shot down the stretch and helped UMD become the only team in history to win the WCHA Final Five after having to play in the Thursday night play-in game, where he made 39 saves in UMD’s 2-1 win over the Gophers.
With Stalock gone, a pair of sophomores has split the goaltending duties for Scott Sandelin’s team. Brady Hjelle, who played two games last season as a freshman, and Pittsburgh native Kenny Reiter taken up the tough task of replacing Stalock, and while they haven’t replaced his stellar numbers yet, both have done an admirable job. Hjelle is 5-2-1 with a .903 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.97, while Reiter is just 2-2 but has a save percentage of .907 and a goals against of 2.33. The last three weeks, Reiter has started on Friday while Hjelle has been the man on Saturday, so look for that to continue this weekend against the Gophers.
Traditionally, Bulldog teams have struggled on Olympic-sized ice sheets since their home rink – the DECC – is smaller than ever the traditionally 200’ x 85’ NHL-sized sheets, so naturally they build their team and gear their style of play to that type of rink. However, this version of the Bulldogs has a lot of speed and skill up front, which are two characteristics that they usually don’t have and also generally bode well for teams playing on a big ice sheet.
If the weekend comes down to a battle of special teams, which it often does, UMD is going to have the edge. Minnesota must play disciplined hockey and stay out of the box and make UMD beat them playing five-on-five hockey. For the Bulldogs, they will likely apply a strong forecheck and look to pressure the Minnesota defensive core to hopefully cause turnovers and penalties. Kangas is going to have to be on top of his game, as on paper, Minnesota should have the edge in net.