Marisa Wojcik/Minnesota Daily
If you're looking for a weekend of high-scoring, wide open hockey then Christmas comes early for you. The Minnesota Golden Gophers play their last WCHA series before the Christmas break as they travel to Colorado Springs to take on the high-scoring Colorado College Tigers. Later starts for both games being played in the Mountain Time Zone as Friday night's tilt is at 8:37 CST and Saturday night's is 8:07 CST with both games on FSN+.
The Gophers finish up the 2012 part of the 2012-13 schedule with a trip to Colorado, their last outside the state of Minnesota until mid February. Waiting for them in Colorado Springs is Colorado College, who are 8-7-1 overall and 5-3 in the WCHA with 10 points, good for a three-way tie for fifth with UND, and Minnesota State Mankato. While that record doesn't look like much, consider CC has played eight games against five teams ranked in the top 13 of the latest Pairwise rankings including #2 New Hampshire (tied at home 4-4), #4 Yale (lost 6-5 in OT at home), #10 Denver (lost 6-5 at home and 6-2 at DU), #11 Cornell (lost 2-0 and 3-2 in Ithaca), and #13 North Dakota (won 5-3 and lost 3-2 in OT at home last weekend). That's a 1-6-1 record against those five schools with two of the losses coming in OT. Compare that to the Gophers who have played a grand total of zero teams ranked in the top 15 of the Pairwise thus far (not their fault, obviously, and the tougher part of the schedule started last week), and you can't hold much against CC for their record against that kind of quality opponent.
One thing the Tigers have been able to do win or lose is score goals, as their 59 goals in 15 total games is second best in the WCHA (3.69 goals per game) and their 31 goals in 8 conference games (3.88 per) leads everybody. They boast five of the top 15 scorers in the conference, including three senior forwards: Rylan Schwartz and William Rapuzzi are tied with the Gophs' Erik Haula for 2nd with 19 points (both guys have 8 goals and 11 assists), and Scott Winkler is tied for the league lead in goals with 10 and in a four-way tie for fifth in scoring with 18 points. Juniors Alexander Krushelnyski is 11th with 6-10-16 (he is also the son of former NHLer Mike Krushelnyski, who won 3 Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers back in their heyday in the 1980's) and Archie Skalbeck (there are clearly not enough guys in the world named Archie. Well done Mr. and Mrs. Skalbeck) is in a six-way tie for 15th in scoring with Minnesota's Kyle Rau with 6-8-14. Not to be left out, they also have two of the highest scoring defensemen in senior Mike Boivin (6-7-13), who is tied with Joey Legalla for goals with six and is second in points, and junior Eamonn McDermott (2-10-12), who is tied with the U's Nate Schmidt for fourth in scoring amoung WCHA defensemen. Not surprisingly, all of that offense gives them the top power play in conference play at 28%, just ahead of the Gophs at 25.5%.
Also not surprising for a team with that kind of offense but a .500 record is that CC has been struggling at the other end of the rink, as their goals against, penalty kill, and goaltending all rank near the bottom of the league. Can you say fire wagon hockey? This may be one of the few teams all year who want to skate and open it up with Minnesota, since that plays to their strengths much more than trying to slow it down and grind it out. Considering the Tigers play on an Olympic-sized sheet just like Mariucci, it's all the more reason to think we could be in for a very entertaining and high scoring weekend. As we've discussed at length in recent weeks, Minnesota is still looking to get their offense dialed up to the elite level they're capable of, and are averaging under three goals per game in WCHA play, and just over three (3.27 per) overall, which are both middle-of-the-pack numbers in the conference. In the 13 games since their arcade-style beginning when they put up 12 goals in two games on Michigan State, Minnesota has scored more than 3 goals in a game just twice, a 4-0 blanking of UAA on November 9 and a 5-1 win over Vermont during Thanksgiving weekend. Other than that, it's been three goals or less every time out. Thanks to their stellar defense and the play of goalie Adam Wilcox (who was just named the National Rookie of the Month for November) that's about all they've needed most nights, as their 28 goals against in 15 games are the least of any WCHA team thus far (some people, not me, but some people might point out that part of the reason they've allowed so few goals could be because of the schedule). Their special teams have also been excellent, allowing just five goals in 49 short handed situations, and we already mentioned the power play numbers. The Gophers have also been very disciplined as the least-penalized team in the WCHA, and obviously the less you have to kill penalties the better, no matter how good your defense and goaltending.
Staying out of the box and continuing to capitalize on power plays will be key this weekend if indeed we do get some end-to-end, firewagon hockey. This is a big weekend across the conference as the top six teams in the standings (excluding Minnesota State-Mankato) will play one another as Denver is at the Worst Place on Earth at North Dakota and UNO is at St Cloud State, so it could further muddle the standings, or perhaps a few teams can separate themselves a little bit. These next two games are the Gophers' final chance to maintain their hold on 2nd place (currently in a tie with St Cloud State with 12 points) in the WCHA before heading off for Christmas break, and they've played two more games than three of the four teams sitting right behind them in this CC club, the Fighting Whiox, and last weekend's opponent UNO. All three of those teams will make up ground next weekend with more WCHA games while the Gophers are at home wrapping presents and hanging stockings on the chimney with care. If Minnesota wants to give themselves an early Christmas present, it'd be playing some up-tempo hockey (ok, ok that would be an early Christmas present to me) and picking up more than a split out in Colorado before their three week holiday break begins.