Minnesota Gopher Hockey vs. Wisconsin Badgers: Our Very Own Shawshank Redemption?

"Remember Red, hope is a good thing...maybe the best of things."
-- Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

Tuesday night I got back from the Canucks vs Wild game around 10:30. I was in a good mood after seeing a 4-1 Vancouver victory, where they'd been outshot 29-14, with just one shot on goal in the third, yet did just enough to prevail (and got lucky. But that's always part of it, right?). It was the first Canuck victory in Minnesota in their past five trips, and I'd been there in person for the past four losses. So I had some hope after seeing that win. My wife went to bed not long after, so I played some vids, and about midnight was finally ready for bed. I was just turning off the PS3 when I decided to check out Craig Ferguson (love that guy!). He had nobody interesting on, so I was flipping channels and found the movie The Shawshank Redemption on AMC.

I love that movie. It's one of my five favorite movies of all time (for the record, I no longer have any idea what the other four were. Definitely Tombstone, but after that? No idea. In college, I had a definitive top five of Shawshank, Tombstone, the Usual Suspects, Dumb and Dumber, and my all-time fave Braveheart. As someone from Scotch-Irish heritage, I LOVED Braveheart, but I find it hard to watch now knowing just how bat***t crazy Mel Gibson is. Is it wrong that movie is kind of ruined for me now?). When I turned it on, it was just hitting the last hour of the movie where Andy escapes, and they explain the escape,and Red gets out of prison and, well you know. It's IMPOSSIBLE for me to turn off that movie in the last hour of it because it's just so good. Doesn't matter how many times I've seen it, I end up watching it again til the end.

One of the best parts of the movie involves the quote I linked to at the top, where Red finds the money and letter Andy left for him, and in the letter Andy again reminds him about hope. It's the theme of the movie obviously, where even in seemingly the worst of situations, you should still have hope that things are going to get better. For Gopher fans, I think we can relate very much to Andy and Red imprisoned in Shawshank. We are confined to cheering for a school who's Big 3 programs haven't given us much in the way of hope lately. I dared earlier in the week to have some hope that Jerry Kill is finally the guy who's going to lead Gopher football to the promised land. Tubby is still the right coach to lead Gopher basketball back, and despite the heartbreaker to Penn State last night, they're still very much in the running for a third straight NCAA tourney appearance.

And then there's Gopher hockey...

This is the one team in all of Minnesota who is supposed to be a juggernaut. A small market or limited recruiting areas are not a factor in college hockey because Minnesota is the best state for high school hockey players in America. The Gophers have won the Twin Cities two most recent championships, and were the one team in town we could have New York Yankees, Duke basketball, or Ohio State football-sized expectations for. And man, has that made the past four seasons that much harder.

This season, for the most part, has played out much like the past three, with the Gophers showing a glimpse of hope from time to time, but in the end, we were faced with the hopeless reality that they just weren't good enough. Before last weekend, the Gophs had notched impressive victories over UND and UMD, a sweep of Colorado College, and ties vs Duluth and Wisconsin. Of course, along with that also came spankings where they were swept by UNO and Minnesota State, as well as home losses to St Cloud and most recently UAA. Oh, and the Gophers are in danger of being below .500 at Mariucci, a place where they were once seemingly unbeatable- or at least a place where they won more than they lost.

In last weekend's series vs. Denver, Friday night's game pretty much summed up the season- they outshot DU by a wide margin, only gave two power plays to the Pioneers and had SIX of their own. And they still lost 2-1. That was it for me, final proof that the Gophers were cooked and hope was gone. And then came Saturday night's game...

Like Andy Dufresne diving out of the sewage pipe to freedom, the Gophers exploded for seven goals on 44 shots with seven different goal scorers. They led 6-0 after two, and pretty much dominated one of the best teams in the country (even after the loss DU is still tied for 4th in the Pairwise rankings). Oh, and they did it all without their captain and leading scorer, Jay Barriball.

Did that win give you hope, Gopher fans? That, along with the win over North Dakota up in Grand Forks a few weeks ago, gives Minnesota two wins over two to the top teams in the country. The kinds of teams they'd have to beat to get back to the NCAA tourney, and beyond. They come out of that weekend with six conference games remaining until the playoffs, with 21 points sitting one back of CC for sixth (the early season sweep of the Tigers gives Minnesota the tie-breaker), and just three points behind this weekend's opponent, the arch rival Wisconsin Badgers.

The rivalry continues in Madison, where Sconnie has won 9 of their past 10 at the rauckus Kohl Center. The Gophs have actually faired ok in Madtwon the past few seasons, as they're 3-3-2 in their last 8 games in the Wisconsin capital. The Badgers have REALLY struggled against the top four in the WCHA: a woeful 1-8-1 vs North Dakota, UMD, Denver, and UNO, which essentially locks them into no better than a five seed.

But could it get worse for Bucky Badger? With the Gophs' three points back, if we see the type of offense and skating we saw last Saturday, could the Gopher's not just split, but perhaps take three, even four points? They'll need at least three points, and some help the rest of the way, as Sconnie closes at St Cloud State (it's anybody's guess which Huskies team shows up: the ones who are ninth in the WCHA, or the ones who routed UMD 8-2 and then tied them the next night in Duluth?), and then home for Colorado College, who are currently a point up on Minnesota for sixth, and have split their season series with Denver, UND, and UNO. The Gophers close with the two worst teams in the conference home to Michigan Tech, then at Bemidji State.

So a fifth seed- and avoiding CC in the first round- is there for the taking. Wisconsin has actually struggled to score more than the Gophers in conference play, notching just 60 goals to Minnesota's 67. But as is usually the case with the Badgers, their defense and goaltending have been otherworldy, allowing a conference-low 49 goals. But that isn't to say Sconnie's been all-defense this season, as they've still racked up 107 goals in 32 games this year (3.34), and have four players with more than 32 points, including sophomore defenseman Justin Schultz, who was a mind-boggling 41 points (15 G- 26 A). As you probably know by now, Minnesota doesn't have a player with over 23 points on the year- but that was SO before-the-last-game. With the Gophs' new found scoring touch, anything's possible offensively, right? RIGHT?

Like I did with Coach Kill, I'm going to choose hope for this weekend's series. Yes, the Badgers are excellent defensively and don't take penalties, but I'm HOPING Minnesota carries their confidence from Saturday night's win over DU into the Kohl Center and the big rivalry series. If Minnesota can post a huge win over Denver and follow it up with a strong showing in a hostile environment against an arch-rival? That's Andy Dufresne-level hope right there. This weekend will tell us if Andy makes it out of the prison to freedom (the Gophers look like contenders) or if we're facing another long year behind the walls of Shawshank (the magic and scoring prowess from Saturday doesn't show up).

Tonight's game is at 7pm on Big Ten Network. Saturday is 8pm on FSN.

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