You've heard it by now, but here it is again- playing DU, especially in Denver, has been a gong show for Gopher hockey the past few years. We had hoped this year would be different, that a Gopher team ranked in the top 3 in the country, 7th in the Pairwise, and with a three point lead for first place in the WCHA would be able to at least get a split against the Pioneers last weekend. Didn't happen. They got skated off the rink in a 5-3 loss Friday night, and looked, well for the most part they looked like they have in most of their Friday night efforts this season. Just simply not good enough. The Friday night swoon continues, and has for almost FIVE STRAIGHT SEASONS, and yet we remain without an explanation as to why.
Saturday night's loss was a tough one. Both teams were without one of their top scorers (Kyle Rau for Minnesota, Jason Zucker for Denver) and the Gophs' scored first and held a late 3-2 lead. But then the Gophs' penchant for penalties finally got them, as Nick Shore scored on the ensuing PP with less than two minutes left to tie it, then he scored again in OT for the 4-3 win. A crusher, but had the Gophers played better and won Friday night, the loss Saturday wouldn't have hurt quite so bad.
As it stands, it was a craptastic weekend, but all is not lost for Minnesota. Far from it, actually...
First off, while the Gophers really could have used at least a split, Denver is a damn good team that's finally getting healthy. They were the coaches' preseason pick to win the conference, and you could see why against Minnesota. They had a ton of injuries, especially in net where they've had to use four different goalies at some point this year, but with starter Sam Brittain back and them getting healthier in front of him, well, you could see the results. It's a good team, a dangerous team, and one that helped themselves a lot with the sweep. They moved up to 7th in the Pairwise, now well ahead of Minnesota, and bumped up to third in the WCHA title chase, as they now stand just two points back of Minnesota for first, and one back of UMD for second. However, they definitely have the toughest road left as they finish with Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Nebraska-Omaha, but with the way they're playing, as well as how average the Gophers and Bulldogs have been lately, DU's going to be in it until the end.
And yes, as just mentioned, despite getting swept the Gophers somehow miraculously remained in first, as pretty much everybody in the top 5 of the WCHA but Denver lost too. The Gophers still have 30 points, just like they did at this time last week, but UMD could only gain two points as they split with North Dakota, and sit just behind the U with 29 points. Denver jumped to third with 28, CC and UNO both had horrible weekends and are now tied for fourth with 25 points. UNO lost and tied Tech and CC was swept- yes swept!- at Bemidji State. Minnesota's next opponent? Yep, the Beavers. UND is a point behind in sixth and Tech is a point behind them in seventh.
With the way this WCHA season has gone, the Gophers are still in good shape and control their own destiny, but they need to start winning, and like, NOW. With the loss they're almost out of the top 10 in the rankings, and more importantly- and troubling- they tumbled from 7th all the way to 12th in the Pairwise. Again, top 14 are eligible for the NCAA tourney without winning your conference bid, so the Gophers need to pick it up in their final six games to hold onto a top 12 spot, and hopefully move back towards the top 5 for a better seed. It goes without saying they need to do well in the WCHA playoffs and not only make the Final Five this year but win a round or two (or just the whole thing. Whichever), but the better the Pairwise ranking at the end of the regular season, the more secure the safety net heading into the playoffs.
The worry around town and amongst Gopher fans is that maybe this isn't the championship caliber team we thought it was. The first month and a half gave a lot of hope with a 9-1 record and #1 national ranking in early November, but since then, when they swept North Dakota, the Gophs' have been almost exactly average at 10-10-1. Eerily reminiscent of the past three or four disappointing seasons when talented Gopher teams under Don Lucia were average or worst- at best.
They've shown signs this season can be different. The defense, goaltending and special teams have all been top-notch, but their scoring has now dropped to 5th best during conference play, and they remain #1 in the conference in penalty minutes. That's fine when your aggression is translating to offense and scoring chances, but it makes life difficult when the power play isn't clicking as much, and puts a lot of pressure on your goalie and penalty kill to be perfect everytime out.
There's six games left to strengthen their lead in the conference and work their way back up the Pairwise, and it starts this weekend. It has to. Bemidji comes to Mariucci in the ol' trap series, as Minnesota can't be caught looking ahead to UNO and Wisconsin their final two weekends. The Beavers are always fired up when they play Minnesota, and they would not only love nothing more than to pull the upset, it would also help them gain ground in the fight for 6th and home-ice advantage, as they're just three points back of North Dakota for 6th right now. BSU is 9th in both scoring and defense, but their powerplay is a respectable 6th and their penalty kill is #1 in the conference right now at an 84.8% clip. They also don't hurt themselves much as they have the second fewest penalty minutes while the Gophers- as mentioned- have the most.
Expect BSU to try and slow things down, clog the middle of the ice, and wait for Minnesota to commit penalties or turnovers and then capitalize. It's a formula that has worked all too well for other teams this season, especially on Friday nights, and one that the Beavers can use to get at least a split. This is a series at home that Minnesota not only should sweep but NEEDS to sweep to move back up the Pairwise rankings and to keep their spot atop the WCHA standings, as UMD travels to Minnesota State for what should be a four point weekend for them.
The Gophers still control their own destiny, but they need to regain their form, and fast. There's still time for this season to end in glory, but if they continue to play .500 hockey...well we've seen how that plays out the past few years, and it's far from glory. Let's hope it