Dare we ask for two sweeps in a row? Last week we said a sweep of MTU was needed, and a good team would sweep a team as bad as the Huskies...and your Golden Gophers came through! This week? It's a trip to the Beaver Dam (I don't think that's the nickname for Bemidji State's arena, but clearly it should be. Or should not be. Of course there's other things we could call it that have to do with Beaver jokes but we'll refrain from those because we're classy. Ok we're not, but still, we'll refrain) as the Gophers finish up the regular season in Bemidji. Minnesota needs just one win in two nights to clinch 5th place in the WCHA, and I like the odds of that happening.
The Gophers are playing their best hockey of the season going 4-0-1 in their past 5, and outscored their opponents in that stretch 25-12. For a team that struggled to score for so long, they're suddenly getting contributions from their top 3 lines, and now look to work in their leading scorer and captain, as senior forward Jay Barriball is set to return from the dreaded "lower body injury."
The Don says Barriball will be back, likely starting on the third line Friday night, and working his way up as the weekend goes along. In Barriball's absence, fellow senior Jacob Cepis has grabbed the leadership role, scoring like a banchee (I've never actually seen a banchee score, but I assume it would look quite similar to Cepis' performance the past three weeks) on the top line. A first line of Cepis, Barriball, and center Nick Bjugstad would be pretty nice, but then again senior wing Mike Hoeffel has been excellent opposite Cepis, and freshman center Erik Haula- who is suddenly second on the team in scoring- deserve top line consideration too. However Coach Lucia shakes out his top two lines (junior Jake Hansen would probably be the sixth guy, as he's found his scoring touch of late too), that's a nice 1-2 punch for Minnesota.
Defensively senior Cade Fairchild, junior Aaron Ness, and freshman Mark Alt have been solid as the top 3 guys, and should see plenty more icetime this weekend. Fairchild has never quite lived up the offensive expecations set for him when he came in a few years ago, but like seemingly everyone his play has been better the past three weeks, and his +10 leads all Gopher defensemen.
Still, the guy that continues to hold it all together is junior goalie Kent Patterson, who is finally getting more help in his own end, and is proving to be one of the best goalies in the WCHA. In conference play he has the top save percentage (.926), is third in GAA at 2.31, and only UNO's John Faulkner has more saves (629) than Patterson (627).
Bemidji comes in tied for 10th in the WCHA with Minnesota State with 20 points, two back of UAA for 9th and four behind St Cloud for 8th. With UAA and MSU-Mankato squaring off, there's certainly an opportunity for the Beavers to move up with some points this weekend. Of course, even if BSU had nothing to play for, it's still Minnesota, and the Gophers are still the team to beat and hate in the State of Hockey. The Beavers and their fans would love nothing more than to get some bragging rights over the Gophers, so you can be sure Minnesota will see Bemidji's "A game" this weekend.
And when the Beavers bring their A game, they're a tough team to beat. Not only do they have wins against CC and St Cloud State on their conference resume, but get this- they're 3-0-1 against Dean Blais and UNO this season. If you're wondering- and I know you are- BSU is the only team in the WCHA this season with a winning record against the Red Mavs. Crazy, no?
BSU isn't a high scoring team with just 57 goals in conference play (3rd worst in the league. For comparison, and to tell you how crazy Minnesota's recent run has been, the Gophs have shot up to 4th with 85 goals), yet somehow, perhaps as mysterious as their ability to beat UNO, is their power play is tops in the conference. You heard me. Despite by far the least amount of power play opportunities, Bemidji has converted 20 of 92 chances. Pretty amazing. The same way Ron Burgandy believes scholars may never know the origins of the name "San Diego" (it was actually discovered by the Germans in 1904 and means a whale's...um, beaver?), we may never know how Bemidji State struggles to score 5-on-5 yet has the top-ranked power play. "Agree to disagree."
They have only seven players with double-digit points (Minnesota has 12), but forwards Jordan George (15G-17A-32 pts. Also, beware of a man with two first names!) and Matt Read (17-13-30) both have at least 30 points, something which no Gopher has done as of yet. Defensively they're middle of the pack in the conference, or as the kids like to say "meh". Good way to some up junior goalie Dan Bakala, who's 8th in GAA (2.66) and 6th in save % (.911). Pretty "meh" indeed.
Still, Bemidji's going to be fired up, and they've proven they can play well when they're on, so this is going to be a tough weekend for the Gophers. To bring it back around, dare we ask for another sweep? Minnesota needs just one win to clinch 5th, and I like their chances of getting that. But considering the U is sitting 19th in the Pairwise Rankings, and need to jump 5 spots to get into the top 14 for an automatic berth, the Gophers need to, as Frank the Tank would say, "to keep on...keep on truckin'" because right now they need all the wins they can get. Because of the convoluted nature of how the Pairwise Rankings are made (I saw someone wrote this week that the Pairwise is the only playoff system more messed up than the BCS), there's no real consensus on what Minnesota needs to do to grab that automatic berth- well other than just keep winning.
For certain a sweep this weekend helps, and then they almost have to win their first round WCHA series. From people much smarter and more informed on this stuff than me (which would be "anyone"), at least one win this weekend, a first round series win AND another victory in the quarters of the Final Five SHOULD be enough to get that automatic NCAA tourney bid. But again, just to be safe, the more wins the better. The Gophs should get at least one win this weekend, and a second will only help their NCAA tourney hopes.
Puck drops 7:30 tonight, and 7:00pm Saturday, with both games on FSN TV and WCCO 8-3-Oh radio.