BRIAN JENKINS, for the Free Press
After a successful weekend sweep of Vermont, Gopher hockey moved up one spot in both polls into third and three places in the Pairwise to 10th. Minnesota is yet to play a team ranked in the Pairwise's top 28 ranking, but that all changes starting this weekend. In the next six weeks the Gophers will play six games against four teams ranked in the top 19, including #1 Boston College.
It was Christmas come early for Gopher hockey fans over the weekend as Minnesota lit the lamp and provided eight opportunities to give thanks for a long-awaited scoring outburst. The U dominated play Friday night with a 5-1 win while outshooting the Catamounts 35-23 that included four- count 'em, FOUR- goals at even strength. Saturday night Vermont tightened up and it was close throughout with the winner coming on AJ Michaelson's first career goal in the second period, and Nate Condon's empty netter late in the third sealing a 3-1 victory. The Gophers outshot Vermont again, but barely, 33-27 as the Gophers were o-fer on the power play but managed two more goals 5-on-5, plus the empty-netter.
The scoring wasn't just prolific, but balanced as eight different players scored the eight goals and it came from every line: in Friday night's win the goals came from Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau on the top line, captain Zach Budish on the second, Seth Ambroz on the third line, and defenseman Mike Reilly. Besides Condon and Michaelson (2nd and 3rd liners) the other Saturday night goal was from fourth line center Tom Serratore. It showed the kind of superior forward depth the Gophers boast and how when they're playing well they're very, very hard to stop because they're a threat to score no matter which line is on the ice. Sure, the power play was a very mortal 1-9 for the weekend, but I'll take that and seven even-strength goals any weekend, as that potent power play will never be down long.
Oh, and speaking of Michaelson, the Apple Valley native looks to be the new third line winger with Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz until Sam Warning gets back from injury. Michaelson started out as a part-time fourth liner competing for playing time, and has gradually built up the coaches' trust through the first couple months of the season working his way up the depth chart. Like so many Gopher recruits, he's certainly not lacking talent, as he passed up a chance to play for the USA Development squad in Ann Arbor, played for the USA Junior A squad in a tournament last spring up in Langley, BC and also played in the 2012 CCM USHL/NHL top prospects game a year ago. He's got decent size good speed, and is pretty handy with the puck, which works pretty well with the all-around skill of Boyd and power-forward Ambroz. Minnesota was in an enviable position with Michaelson as they didn't have room for him in the top nine forwards to start the season, but thanks to his solid play, and an opportunity due to Warning's injury, he's getting his chance to contribute. Figuring out where to play him when Warning gets back (a timeline for which we still haven't seen, but from everything Russo and others are reporting, it wouldn't be surprising to see Sam out until after Christmas) will be a nice problem to have.
As good as the offense was, the defense and goaltending might have been better allowing just two goals all weekend on 50 shots and killing all nine penalties the team took. Adam Wilcox continues to be- I mean- what else can we say about a true freshman who looks like he's been playing in the WCHA for years? Maybe that's all there is to say. The top six defenseman have been rock solid, and Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl have done well accepting their roles as reserves who fill in well on the fourth line wing.
Coming off the sweep the Gophers are now 9-2-2 overall and 3rd in the country in both polls, and while they moved up in the Pairwise, they're still just 10th. Reason being, as we discussed last week, is because they are still yet to play anybody ranked in the Pairwise (which looks at the top 28 teams), but as we also discussed, that's about to change in a hurry. Their next two weekends of conference games- the last before the Christmas break- are at home against UNO (17th in the Pairwise, 14 in the polls) and in Colorado Springs against CC (19th in the Pairwise and they just dropped out of the top 15 of the polls with weekend losses to #2 New Hampshire and #13 Yale). They get 11 days off, then host the Mariucci Classic holiday tournament (Thankfully, at least for Gopher fans, Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt AND Kyle Rau are all too old to be selected for the Team USA World Junior squad. The annual holiday tournament that pits the best 19 and under hockey players in the world usually robs the Gophers of some of its best players, and while they still may lose some solid contributors like Travis Boyd and Brady Skjei- both of whom were invited to the evaluation camp last summer- at least they won't lose some of their very best players like past years), and unlike most years, it's not full of cupcakes. The Gophers host Air Force on December 29, who have developed a solid program the past few years, then on December 30 it's Boston College. No big deal- just the defending national champs, current #1 team in both the Pairwise and the polls, and the team who ended the Gophers' season in the Frozen Four when they beat them something like 172-0 (Or at least that's how it felt). They then get a week off before a random Tuesday night game when Minnesota hosts the coach's kid and Wild draft pick Mario Lucia and Notre Dame January 8 before diving back into conference play with a weekend series at Mariucci January 11 and 12.
So yeah, things are about to get tougher but as you may have noticed, besides the trip to Colorado, ALL of those games are at home, inside the comfy and rather large confines of Mariucci arena where the speedy Gophers are so hard to beat. And it keeps getting better: after said road trip to CC, the Gophers will only leave the state of Minnesota one more time in the regular season, and it's not until a February 15th weekend trip to Madison and Chicago to play the Badgers. Otherwise, all of their games are either at home, or a not-so-bad bus ride to Mankato, St Cloud, and Bemidji. Minnesota might be 10th in the Pairwise now, but the schedule is set for them to move up if they take care of business, and considering how good they are at home, I really like their chances to take care of business. Christmas has come early, indeed.