Gophers Athletics/Paul Rovnak
Like that Red Bull guy who parachuted from outer space (great line from a friend of mine's Facebook page: "That awkward moment when you realize an energy drink company has a better space program than your country."), Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey came back to earth this weekend. Despite them descending quickly from the upper strastosphere of the college hockey world, the Gophers are still one of the best teams in the country, and are still well equipped to win the WCHA and a national title. Michigan Tech just reminded everyone that as good as the Gophers are, they still need to actually, you know, show up and play well to win.
Don Lucia got his 600th career coaching win, but really, it came a game later than it should have been as his team didn't show up ready to win Friday night. Michigan Tech Gopher'd the Gophers in the first game (not to be confused with "Doing the Gopher") coming out fast, playing aggressive, and got a quick goal to put pressure on Minnesota early. Minnesota fought back to tie it 1-1 as Nate Schmidt buried a rebound as the teams skated four-on-four, but instead of the U waking up and taking control, it was Tech who bounced back five minutes later with two goals 22 second apart. They led 3-1 after one and 5-2 after two, putting the Gophers in a hole they couldn't climb out of as they lost 5-3.
Starting goalie Michael Shibrowski was yanked in the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots, and freshman Adam Wilcox played well in relief, stopping 11 of 12 shots he faced. Wilcox started Saturday night and the team responded with some actual effort and desire from the start, and it resulted in a hard-fought 3-2 win for Lucia's 600th. Seth Ambroz had two big goals in the victory, and the big sophomore winger has looked very good thus far. Minnesota outshot the Huskies 34-18 Saturday night, and took just two penalities (and just five total all weekend), but were unable to convert on five power play opportunities, and were just 1-3 the night before. The power play wasn't good enough, but the penalty kill was, also allowed a goal in three chances Friday and holding the Huskies without a power play goal in just two opportunites on Saturday.
After a ridiculous opening weekend for the top two lines, they were pretty sub-par in Houghton. Each had just a point in the win (an goal for Erik Haula and an assist for Kyle Rau), and Friday night the second line was shut out, while Bjugstad's goal assisted by Christian Isackson was all the top line could muster on Friday. Both need to be better, and with all that talent, they will be. The third line was huge both nights, with two points each for Travis Boyd and Nate Condon in the loss, and Ambroz's two goals and an assist for Boyd and Condon in the win. Nice to have that kind of scoring depth, and that line really has found some chemistry.
We did see a shakeup of the defensive pairings, as we had the same groups we saw last weekend on Friday with Justin Holl playing wing on the fourth line. After the loss, Lucia really mixed it up, pairing Ben Marshall and Mark Alt, Mike Reilly and Seth Helgeson, and Nate Schmidt and Jake Parenteau on Saturday moving frosh Brady Skjei to the wing. I'd be shocked to see Skjei not back in the rotation this weekend, but considering they have an exhibition game against the USA U-18 squad Friday, and a weird Sunday afternoon time against Canisius (they lost the exhibition opener to Canadian college Ottawa, are 1-3 with losses to Anchorage and were swept over the weekend by #12 Western Michigan. The lone win? Over Alaska...who just beat North Dakota. Go figure), it's pretty likely Lucia may continue to tweak his defensive pairings a little more while he can to see what else may work. As for the goaltenders, expect to see Shribrowski and Wilcox continue to split starts, but my money is on Wilcox starting the game that counts Sunday against Canisius.
The national polls aren't out yet and it'll be interesting to see who the new #1 is, and how far the Gophers drop. #2 North Dakota also split this weekend, beating Anchorage and suffering their first loss of the year to Alaska-Fairbanks, #3 BC already had their first loss before last weekend, and #4 Miami won and tied Providence over the weekend. I highly, highly doubt Minnesota falls out of the top 5, and may not even the top 3. Minnesota proved they're mortal and just like everybody else, they'll need to show up and play to win (a novel concept, I know), but this is still one of the best teams in hockey, and Operation Pittsburgh (the site of this year's Frozen Four) remains very much in play. Interesting to monitor will be just how good this Michigan Tech squad is, something we obviously won't know until we get deeper into the season, but they were very, very impressive. Slated to be competing in the middle of the WCHA pack, if that's a "middle" team, then it's going to be even tougher than usual in the final year of the WCHA.