Wisconsin's record will say otherwise, but the Badgers are a quality hockey team and when you add in the rivalry, Minnesota getting three of a possible four points from the Badgers this weekend has to be seen as a win. And yet, Denver swept a very good CC team, putting themselves another point ahead of the Gophers in the WCHA standings with 14 to the U's 10. At the moment, Minnesota sits alone in second place, but the four teams behind them- UNO with 9, and UNO, UND, and CC with 8 points- all have played two less conference games than the Gophers.
Minnesota got the Badgers' best effort, which is the case with pretty much every opponent the Gophers will play. That's what happens when you have the reputation of being one of the country's premiere programs, and that's what makes it so challenging to live up to as you're never going to get an easy game from anybody. The Gophers outshot Sconnie badly on the weekend, 43-24 in a 2-2 tie Friday night and 28-17 Saturday night's 3-1 win, but the puck continues to not find the back of the net as often as they'd like. Three of their five goals came at even strength, with the fourth on the power play on Friday and the fifth an empty-netter from Kyle Rau Saturday to seal the deal. Erik Haula continues to be the team's best offensive player, as he and line-mate Zach Budish each had a goal in two assists in the two games, while the top line of Nick Bjugstad, Rau and Christian Isackson was shut out on Friday but responded with a goal and assist from Bjugy and the Rau empty-netter and an Isackson assist to lead the way. I hope Don Lucia keeps those two lines as they were, as that seems to give the Gophers' it's most balanced attack. He's keeping Condon up on the second line which has looked good, and rotated different wingers in with Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz on the third. They have enough talent that they'll figure it out with Sam Warning still out with injury.
The top six defensemen were locked in again, and barring injury Lucia has his pairings together. They were solid for the most part, and limited Sconnie's chances for most of the weekend. Goalie Adam Wilcox wasn't challenged often but made saves when he had to, though Badger goalie Landon Peterson stood on his freaking head to keep Wisconsin in Friday night's win. The Gophs had plenty of chances in that one to get the W but they missed some golden opportunities, and you have to credit Patterson's play as well. Still, you have to feel pretty good about Wilcox's play, especially for a freshman, and feel like goaltending won't be much of an issue for them this year. Ditto the defense, as while they've had issues turning it over from time-to-time, they still have allowed the second fewest goals in average in conference play (just 2.38 per game), and are the only team in the WCHA allowing less than two goals per game for the entire season, as they've allowed just 21 goals in 11 total games, an average of just 1.91. Yes, their schedule hasn't been exactly strong thus far, but you can't ask for much more from your defense and goaltending to this point.
The offense, on the other hand, is a different story. They haven't been terrible obviously, but when you have a group with the elite skill that Minnesota does there is simply no excuse to be sixth in the conference in scoring right now. Just look at Denver: despite the loss of some serious talent to the pros last year, including two of the WCHA's leading scorers in Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, the Pioneers' seem to have simply reloaded as they've scored a whopping 35 goals in eight WCHA games (and 45 goals in 10 total) against a tougher schedule than Minnesota has played. The Gophers and all their fire power have just 23 goals in conference play and 36 overall, which ranks sixth and fifth respectively in goals-per-game against other WCHA teams. That has to improve. Not time to panic or anything, as it's only November, but if Minnesota wants to catch DU and win the last MacNaughton Cup that's going to mean anything as regular season WCHA champions, all of that fire power needs to start putting the biscuit in the basket. They've been getting plenty of shots, which is a great sign, now it's just making good.
There won't be much ground to be made up this coming weekend by any of the four clubs chasing Minnesota, as St Cloud State is the only one who will play a WCHA series. And two games on the road in Duluth against a UMD squad that are starting to find their stride are not going to be easy. Duluth is still mired in last place, but took North Dakota to overtime both nights Friday and Saturday, picking up a tie and a loss. That's definitely a sign of progress for the Bulldogs playing in one of the most hostile environments in all of college hockey, and St Cloud will be in tough to pick up points. Otherwise, North Dakota gets a tough Thanksgiving with two games at Notre Dame while UNO and CC will be at home against Alabama-Huntsville and Yale. DU won't get a chance to pad their conference lead either as they host New Hampshire. The Gophers also get a Hockey East opponent as they'll travel to Vermont to take on what looks to be a bad Catamounts club, who are just 1-4-2 thus far. Road trip or not, that needs to be a four point weekend for the Gophers as they get two huge weekends after that against UNO and CC before the Christmas break. We'll see if the offense can get back on track, and if the defense and goaltending will continue to shine.