University of Minnesota Athletics
Gophers and Mavs will meet for the final time as WCHA members this weekend, as just three points separate the two schools who currently are tied for first and sixth place.
The Gophers have just six WCHA regular season series remaining in The Last Season That Matters, and unlike North Dakota, five of the six are schools Minnesota will see plenty of in the coming years. They have their last ever conference series with the four Minnesota schools- Duluth, St Cloud, Bemidji and this weekend against Mankato- who they'll be playing annual non-conference series with beginning next season. Wisconsin is on the slate as well, and of course they'll see plenty of each other in the B1G. Denver, who they face in early March, is an old rival who they won't see again in the forseeable future, save for a chance meeting in the NCAA tourney.
Entering the weekend just three points separates seven teams from first through sixth place, as the Gophers and St Cloud lead with 22 points, and Mankato and Duluth are tied for sixth with 19. And don't look now, but Wisconsin is gaining steam with 17 points; after their horrible first two months when they started 1-7-2, Bucky is 8-1-3 since being swept by Mankato back on Thanksgiving weekend. Also bear in mind that of the top 8 right now DU, Mankato and Duluth have played 18 conference games already, while everybody else has played 16. So while DU is tied for third and Mankato and Duluth are battling for sixth, they may have more trouble hanging onto those spots as everyone catches up in games played.
Minnesota's final six series will be important and full of meaning on their tour of "Last WCHA Series Against..." rolls on, but let's be honest: it's going to be tough to top last weekend against UND. Yes there'll be emotion playing everybody "one last time" and with the standings as tight as they are, every point really matters, but the Gophers are likely to see some teams in the next series who are more amped than they are, especially the Minnesota schools, and especially those like Mankato. Knocking off mighty Minnesota is seen as one of their biggest accomplishments every season, and I'm worried about a let-down this weekend for the Gophs. The Mavs are playing great hockey, and nobody picked them to have any shot at home ice advantage in the WCHA playoffs, yet here they are. If Mankato is able to keep this up then coach Mike Hastings will definitely be in the running for coach of the year. They have some quality wins to their credit including a sweep of Wisconsin early in the year, and victories over UNO and the Gophers. We know MSU will have zero fear or awe of Minnesota, losing a close game at Mariucci 3-2 and whipping the Gophers down in Mankato 5-3 back in November. I'd expect nothing less than that kind of effort and passion from the Mavs, and if Minnesota doesn't match it both nights, they're in trouble.
Mankato has been snake-bit the past couple of weeks, as they were swept by Wisconsin two weekends ago at home with both losses coming in OT. MSU had to score late in both to force OT, but also outshot Wisconsin too. Last weekend they travelled to UAA in what is always a tough place to play because of the long flight and time difference, and came away with three points. In the Friday night tie they had a 3-1 lead heading into the third, and held it for almost 17 minutes before UAA scored two quick ones to force OT. Saturday night looks like MSU played angry, pounding the Seawolves 4-0 and outshooting them 28-18.
This is certainly not a Mankato team to take lightly, as their numbers, both in conference play and out, have been pretty strong. Their OOC schedule hasn't exactly been daunting with games against Alabama-Huntsville, Rensselaer, Brown, UConn, and Providence, but their conference numbers are actually pretty similar. Their scoring offense is just 7th but they are averaging just over three goals per game, fourth in goals allowed (2.56 per), and the part that should worry Gopher fans is their special teams have been very good, second only to Minnesota's with a net of +8. Their PP is a solid 5th at almost 21% and their PK has been very good as its third best in the conference at 87% success rate. The one thing working against them has been how often they have to kill penalties as they're third in average penalty minutes at just over 15 per game- Minnesota is 10th with a shade under 12 a game, and while that number might not seem significant, that's more than an extra PP per game the Gophers would get if those numbers play out, an advantage that definitely plays to their favor.
With those numbers it's no surprise their defense and goaltending have been very good. While much has been made of Minnesota' rookie goalie Adam Wilcox (and rightfully so), Mankato seems to have a beauty of their own in freshman Stephon Williams. The Fairbanks, AK native played two years in the USHL before joining the Mavs this season, and he's been a real revelation for MSU, as his 1.80 GAA is second only to Wilcox among WCHA goalies and his .925 save% is fourth. The Gophers did not see him in either game when they split their two games in early November, and that looks to be the last time now backup Phil Cook played, as Williams has started every game since. Up front the two guys to watch out for are a pair of sophomores in Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul Lafontaine. Leitner is tied for 7th with Erik Haula among WCHA scorers with 29 points in 26 games (both guys have 10 goals 19 assists), and Lafontaine isn't far behind with 24 points in 26 games (8 G 16 A). Senior forward Eriah Hayes is the only other Mav with over 20 points (12-9-21) and sophomore Zach Palmquist is their leading scorer among defensemen with 18 points (5-13).
For Minnesota their D and goaltending have been stellar all season, and now the dynamic offense is starting to get going with at least four goals scored in each of their past nine games, and have been averaging almost five a night during that stretch (4.89 goals per). Erik Haula made a strong return last weekend from a broken finger, and looked as good as hoped on the top line with Nick Bjugstad (whose 12 points are the most since the Christmas break), and Kyle Rau (who is just awesome). Nate Condon certainly alleviated any fears of replacing Haula's second line center production as he was named the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week with a five point weekend against UND. If he can continue to anchor that second line, the Gophers are in really good shape for the stretch run here. I did find it a little surprising that Don Lucia broke up the Travis Boyd-Seth Ambroz combo that had been so good on the third line, but I can see his thinking now as Lucia is committed to playing defensemen Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl as wingers full-time now. If that's the case, it'd be tough to play two converted wingers on the fourth line together, and instead is breaking them up to balance things out and help both learn the position on the fly. While I loved seeing Boyd and Ambroz together, Lucia obviously feels strongly about Boyd and Tom Serratore together on the third and Holl acquitted himself well with those two last weekend. And wow what a fourth line that makes with Ambroz and former top-liner Christian Isackson grouped with Parenteau. What is does is give the Gophers a 1A and 1B top two lines and really his third and fourth lines would be solid third lines for most other schools.
If Minnesota continues to play like this they're going to be very tough to beat, but this again is where the intensity and passion factors in. Everybody left on their schedule will have the Minnesota game circled on their calendar, and as we've seen, it's tough to always be at 110% every night. Still as we've seen in the past month, Minnesota's A game is better than anybody else's, and when they bring it, they usually win. They'll definitely need it to get four points off a very good Mankato club this weekend. Both games are at 7pm and on the radio on 1500E!SPN, while Friday night's game at Mariucci is on BTN, and Saturday night's tilt down in Mankato is on FSN+.