The Minnesota Gopher Hockey club heads into their Thanksgiving weekend series with Vermont (the first time they've ever made the trip dontchaknow) ranked 4th in the national polls, and 13th in the Pairwise. Vermont is not off to a strong start at 2-5-2, and is currently looking like one of the worst teams in Hockey East. Minnesota is better in every facet of the game, and this is a series they not only should sweep, but one where they'd do well to pick up four points while they have the chance. The lower ranking in the Pairwise is almost entirely to do with their perceived weak schedule, but that will change in a hurry once December hits.
The Gophers are so far down in the Pairwise rankings, behind teams with worse records like North Dakota (5-3-2) and St Cloud State (6-4), because they're one of only three teams in the rankings who have yet to play a team that is ranked in the top 27 of the Pairwise. Sad, but true. Obviously, this isn't Minnesota's fault as Michigan State is usually a strong program and was ranked 16th in the national polls to start the season, and ditto Wisconsin, who is usually a top program but is off to their second straight slow start. Part of this will work itself out as the Gophs' backloaded their non-conference schedule with Canisius, Vermont, and Dec 29th's game against Air Force early, but they have huge games to come Dec 30th against Boston College (#1 in the polls and 3rd in the Pairwise) and a random Tuesday, January 8th game against Notre Dame (6th in the polls, 7th in the Pairwise), both of which come at home.
Their conference schedule also ramps up considerably starting next weekend at home against UNO and on the road at CC before Christmas, then a second half schedule that includes North Dakota, St Cloud State (no home-and-home this year as both will be in St Cloud), Denver, and two potential bounce-back teams in UMD and the aforementioned Skunks Wearing Popcorn Boxes. The Gophers' tough part of the schedule is coming, and if they take care of business, they'll have no trouble shooting up the rankings.
So while Minnesota controls their destiny and this weekend is far from a must-sweep, it'd sure be nice to see them lay the smack-down on a smack-downable team (I just made that up). Vermont is certaily not a terrible team, but it looks like a down year for them as they've scored just 16 goals (1.78 per game) and allowed 27 (3 per) through nine games. That's no great, but it's no worse than, oh I don't know, UAA and Mankato maybe? You might remember them, two bottom-of-the-conference teams who the Gophers split and got three points with respectively. I doubt Vermont cares about the Gophers anywhere near as much as everyone does in the WCHA when they play them, but Minnesota is still a name brand and carrier s lofty ranking, and having to travel quite a ways on Thanksgiving gives an advantage to Vermont.
We said before the series against UAA and Mankato and even Wisconsin what we'll say again, a refrain you hear far too often: Minnesota is a better team on paper, but there's no such thing as an easy four point weekend. The Gophers should sweep, and it would help their rankings, but they're going to need to play well in both for it to happen. Defensively that hasn't been much of a problem, and how about the goaltending? Watching Adam Wilcox I have zero worries in net right now. He might not be Kent Patterson just yet, but he's been plenty good enough that I'm not losing sleep over how he'll play. Don Lucia found yet another good one, and he could be between the pipes for Minnesota for a few years to come.
Offensively they've been good enough, but not great, and this group has the talent to be great. The Gophers are averaging a little over three goals a game overall (3.27 to be exact) and less than three per night against WCHA foes (at just 2.88), which puts them about middle of the pack in the conference. They've been doing just enough to win games, and the power play for the most part has been outstanding, so now it's time to see if they can start scoring more at even strength. Erik Haula is the only scoring at least a point a game with 14 in 11 games, including 6 goals, which ties for the team lead with Nick Bjustad. Bjuggy has six goals but just three assists and is tied for third in points with Condon (2 goals 7 assists) while top line winger Kyle Rau continues to do good things with 5 goals and 5 assists. The encouraging thing is they continue to get a lot of shots on net, now it's just burying more of their chances.
Both games will be at 6:05pm central with Friday night's game on FSN+ and Saturday on the main feed on FSN.
Per Russo's blog post today, Sam Warning is out again, and they may hold him out until after Christmas. Expect to see Lucia continue to push Nate Condon up to the second line and juggle the third and fourth. Russo also reports that Bjuggy has the flu and while he'll play, it may not be as much as normal. So there's that, which would obviously REALLY shuffle the lines if he's not able to play much.
Also of interest to me from Russo are the comments he got from Lucia on scheduling:
“We have a four-year deal with Northeastern and Boston College [starting next year], so it’s something I want to continue to do – at least every year get out to the east coast. Right now, we’ll have our 20 Big Ten games, our eight in-state games – that’s 28, we’ll have our tournament, that’s 30, so that’ll leave us four games a year. Right now we’re locked in with Notre Dame, B.C. and Northeastern, and when that drops off, we’ll get North Dakota back on when Notre Dame drops off. When B.C. drops off, that’ll free up another opportunity to go at East to play somebody every other year back and forth. The plan is to try to get out to the east coast every other year.”
I don't know about anyone else, but that's the first I've seen confirmed the the Gophers will continue to play all four Minnesota schools (UMD, St Cloud, Bemidji, and Mankato) every year once they start B1G play in 2013-14. I think that's great, and you wonder if they'll do home-and-homes with everybody or rotate home ice every other year? Still, great news for college hockey in Minnesota that those games will continue. And as much as I hate them, also great to hear UND will be back on the schedule soon. Best rivalry in college hockey and it's going to suck for those four years that it'll go away, but good to know it's coming back.
Enjoy the games this weekend, and have a Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.