Holiday Hockey begins with 2012 Mariucci Classic & World Junior Tournament

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Minnesota Gopher Hockey plays host to #1 Boston College, Air Force, and Alabama-Huntsville (yes, they really have a hockey program) in the Mariucci Classic this weekend while the best U-20 players in the world begin play today in the annual World Junior hockey tournament. The Gophers play Air Force Saturday, Dec 29 and have a Frozen Four rematch with BC Sunday, December 30th, with both games at 7pm on FSN+. NHL Network is showing every Team USA game, as well as those for Canada and host Russia and the entire medal rounds, beginning Dec 26th and running through the gold medal game January 5.

After almost three weeks off, the Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey club gets back on the ice this weekend as they host their annual holiday tournament, the Mariucci Classic. This year's lineup includes their Saturday night opponent, the Air Force Falcons (5-7-4) of the Atlantic Hockey conference, and independent Alabama-Huntsville Chargers (1-14-1), who the Gophers won't play. The real headliner are the Boston College Golden Eagles, who after capping off one of the most dominating college hockey seasons ever with a National Championship last season are back on top at 11-2-1, ranked #1 in both the polls and the all-important Pairwise Rankings.

The Gophers will be looking for a little revenge in the marquee game Sunday night as BC ended Minnesota's playoff run last year in the Frozen Four semis in an embarrassing 6-1 loss. The Gophs' haven't played since the weekend of December 8 in Colorado Springs when they took three of four points from CC. Despite a 11-3-3 overall record and 6-3-3 in conference play, Minnesota is sitting 5th in the WCHA with 15 points, but have two games in hand on everyone ahead of them- Minnesota State (?!?), Denver and top team St Cloud State (?!?!?)- except second place UND. This tournament, as well as a non-conference game January 8 against highly ranked Notre Dame, obviously won't do anything to help the Gophers in the WCHA standings, but could help improve their Pairwise rankings against some very quality opponents.

None will be tougher than BC, who'll be without their top player in F Johnny Gaudreau because of his inclusion on the Team USA world juniors squad, but still boast a potent offense, formidable defense, and a very good goaltender. The offense will be led by seniors Pat Mullane (7 goals 12 assists, 19 points) and Steven Whitney (7-9-16) and juniors Bill Arnold (6-7-13) and Kevin Hayes (5-7-12) while they have a trio of offensive defensemen in freshmen Michael Matheson (4-6-10) and Teddy Doherty (1-7-8), as well as senior Patrick Wey (1-8-9). Senior goalie Parker Milner, who was a rock for BC during their title run last year, has been great again posting a .923 save percentage, 2.20 GAA, and has been in goal for all 11 of their wins.

Minnesota's Friday night opponent Air Force has had an up-and-down season, but as we've seen this season with the Gophers, they won't be taking anyone for granted. The Falcons have six players in double figures in scoring, led by sophomore Cole Gunner's 14 points (3G-11A) and their leading goal scorer is senior Stephen Carew with 8, who's played both forward and some defense this season. Junior Jason Torf has made 16 of 17 starts in goal, and has been solid with a .918 save % and 2.59 GAA for a team that's scored three more goals (49, just one less than BC) than they've allowed thus far.

The Gophs' may will only be missing one player, as freshman D Brady Skjei was cut from Team USA, while fellow frosh blueliner Mike Reilly has made squad. This will be fantastic experience for Reilly to get to play in an international tournament like this, even if he's only a sixth or seventh defenseman. Still, his offensive game will really get an opportunity to shine on the big international sheet, and could find himself with quality playing time with strong play.

Gaudreau, BC's Hobey Baker award candidate, didn't just make Team USA, he should be one of their best players, and will skate on the top line. The 5'6 offensive dynamo will be playing with fellow 5'6 mighty mite Rocco Gramaldi of the FIghting Whioux, and the only pro on the roster in JT Miller, a top pick of the New York Rangers who's playing for their AHL affiliate the Connecticut Whale. Team USA were heavy favorites for gold last year but stumbled to a 7th place finish, while this season they're flying under the radar a little, which should play to their favor. They don't have a high-powered offense like in years past, but that top line is dangerous and will make some plays on the big international sheet, there's some underrated talent behind them, including Don Lucia's son Mario, and the defense and goaltending could be really, really good. Both Reilly and Skjei are excellent players, and if there's not room for one or both on the roster, it shows how deep and talented the US defensive corps is. The best of the bunch is draft-eligible Seth Jones, who should be one of the top two picks in the upcoming NHL draft (assuming they have a draft this year), and their goalie, John Gibson, has a chance to be the tournament's best.

It's the kind of no-frills, hard-working, fast-skating USA team that could medal and pull some upsets, much like the Olympic squad did in Vancouver a few years ago. If you love hockey, I can't recommend this tournament enough, and if you're not hardcore enough to get up early to see the games being played live in Russia, NHL Network will be re-airing all of their coverage on a nightly basis. As mentioned, they're showing every game for Team USA, the entire medal round, as well as preliminary games for the two tournament favorites in Canada and the host Russians. USA drew a tough pool which includes the Canadians and Russians, as well as Slovakia and Germany. Sweden, who won last year, and Finland, who have beat both USA and Canada in tournament tune-ups last week, are the favorites on the other side of the bracket.

Team USA starts the tourney Thursday, Dec 27th against Germany at 8am CST, then has back-to-back monster games with Russia Friday and Canada Sunday. You play everybody in your pool once, then the top three from each make the medal rounds in cross-over games, with #2 teams in Pool A and B playing the #3 team from the other pool in the quarterfinals January 2, the top teams playing the winners in the semis January 3, and the gold and bronze medal games finishing things off Saturday, January 5. For up-to-the-minute coverage of Team USA be sure to check out United States of Hockey and SB Nation's own Western College Hockey Blog, and TSN up in Canada has wall-to-wall coverage of the entire tournament. Oh, and if you're interested in getting a strong opinion of American hockey dominance over Canada, Russia, and the entire world, then Sleeping Giant is an absolute must-read.

That will be a great tourney, and so will the Mariucci Classic, giving hockey fans their fill of great games for the holidays and into the new year.

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