Minnesota Gopher Hockey Still Tops in Poll, Second in WCHA and Pairwise

University of Minnesota Athletics

After a split with Minnesota State Mankato the Gophers dropped one spot in the WCHA to second, but held strong with a #2 ranking in the all-important Pairwise Rankings.

And so it goes. The worry heading into the weekend series with Minnesota State-Mankato was a letdown for the Gophers coming off such an emotional series with UND, and Mankato being all kinds of fired up- as they always are- to beat the Gophers. Boy did it seem just like that in Friday night's game, as the Mavs were fired up, the Gophers were flatter than a pancake, and it resulted in a 2-1 Gopher loss on home ice. Friday night's lowlights:

It was just Minnesota's second loss at Mariucci all season, and broke a streak of 10 games without a loss. Mankato deserved everything they got in the win as the Gophers just could not capitalize on their opportunities, unable to solve Mavs rookie goalie Stephon Williams more than once. Williams stopped 37 of 38 shots and was especially good in the third as he turned back a whopping 20 Gopher shots in the period. Nate Schmidt opened the scoring midway through the second before Mankato's Johnny McInnis answered on the power play late in the period with his 11th of the year. A wild third saw rush after rush from Minnesota, and just when it looked like the game was going to OT, Brett Knowles scored just second goal all season with under a minute to go, shocking and silencing the crowd at Mariucci. It was indeed a heartbreaker, but credit Mankato for being disciplined as they only gave Minnesota two power play opportunities and killed both, while Minnesota's usually stellar PK gave up a goal in two chances. Minnesota, despite the disparity in shots in the third, allowed the Mavs to hang around, and that's always a dangerous way to play, and MSU showed why.

The Gophers' heart and fire showed up in a big way Saturday night as the two teams trekked down 169 to Mankato, resulting in a 4-1 Gopher win. Head coach Don Lucia didn't panic, keeping his lines and D pairings the same, and it showed better results. Justin Holl scored his first of the year to begin the scoring midway through the first, and Nate Schmidt scored his second power play goal in as many nights to make it 2-0 after 1. There was a bit of a donnybrook right before the end of the first as 12 minutes in penalties were called on five different players, including four roughing penalities as well as an unsportsmanlike conduct given to Minnesota's Ben Marshall. The penalities ended up with six minutes for each team so no man advantage given on a night when things were pretty chippy to say the least. Despite MSU outshooting the Gophs 12-6 in the second the score held until Zach Budish gave Minnesota some breathing room with another power play goal nine minutes into the third. The Mavs rallied a few minutes later with a goal from Zach Lehrke, and then had a goal waived off shortly after that, whether the hostile MSU crowd wanted to believe or not, was the right call. Erik Haula finally sealed it with an empty netter with less than four mintues to go.

For the series, a ton of credit goes to MSU and coach Mike Hastings for slowing down Minnesota's offense, which was really flying coming into the weekend. Friday night's loss was the first time all season Minnesota had been held to just one goal, and was the first in nine games they hadn't scored at least four. The power play ended up being the difference as Mankato was 1-2 to Minnesota's 0-2 Friday night while the tables turned the next night with the Gophs converting on two of three chances while the Mavs were shut out in their only two attempts. Also pretty impressive that despite 15 penalties called against the two teams Saturday, there were only four total power plays. Adam Wilcox continued to be mostly brilliant, and I'm not too concerned about Mankato slowind down the Gopher offense. I definitely DO NOT want to see the Mavs come to Mariucci for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, though. Not that it looks like much of a possibility with the way the standings are right now, with Minnesota in 2nd and Mankato in 4th, but just saying.

Despite the split, Minnesota only dropped one spot in the conference standings, tied for second place with UNO with 24 points and just a point back of St Cloud, who after a three point weekend in Grand Forks find themselves in the top spot with 25 points. The Gophers get this week off before a short roady to St Cloud next weekend to face the Huskies, who should still be in top spot considering they play Bemidji this weekend. North Dakota's measly one-point weekend gives them 21 and drops them into a three-way tie for fourth with Mankato and Wisconsin? Sconnie? The Badgers? Didn't Minnesota leave them for dead back in mid-November? So we thought/hoped at the time, but Mike Eaves club has come roaring back, losing just once in their past 14 games with a 10-1-3 record since getting swept by Mankato at the end of November. True, six of those wins came against UAA and Alabama-Huntsville and they tied Michigan Tech twice, but in that stretch they also swept Mankato, split with Miami, OH (currently tied for 3rd in the Pairwise), and beat and tied Denver. That split with Miami especially looks mighty impressive, but we'll find out more this weekend as they travel to North Dakota this weekend. As a Gopher fan, the only good outcome from a Wisconsin vs UND series would be death by killer bees. Or exposure to Grand Forks in February. Either or.

The three schools sitting 7-9 in the conference were all off last week, and Denver (20 points), Duluth (19 pts) and especially CC (15 points? Really?) have some work to do if they want home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. It also shows how crazy competitive this Last WCHA Season to End All WCHA Seasons has been that those three schools would have to go on the road in the first round. It also shows just how important it's going to be for Minnesota to get a top three seed this year: I mean who would you want to see come to Mariucci for the playoffs- the bottom three of Bemidji, Tech or UAA (2010's epic fail against UAA excluded, obviously)? Or one of CC, Denver, Duluth, Mankato or Wisconsin? I will take the first three please. Pretty please.

As for the Pairwise, Minnesota is in good shape for a top seed if they continue to play up to expectations, and they can thank New Hampshire Maine for keeping them in 2nd place, as the Bears Wildcats swept BC over the weekend. With BC falling there's now a three-way tie for third right behind Minnesota with Miami, Yale and UNH. #1? Quinnipiac. No really, they exist, and are apparently pretty good- well, pretty good for a team who haven't beaten- or played- anyone ranked in the top 13 of the Pairwise. High points for their season are wins over Dartmouth (14th in Pairwise), Union (18th) and UNO (21st). Feathers in the cap, all of them.

Oh, and if you need another reason to hate Notre Dame, it's that Minnesota's win over them January 8th is looking less and less impressive. Apparently that loss to the Gophers took ND's will to live, as since then Notre Dame has lost six of eight, including games to Michigan State (who you probably remember Minnesota took behind the woodshed to open the season), Bowling Green, Alaska and Ferris Bueller State. Come on Notre Dame- I hate to see you win, but losing after the Gophers kicked your ass doesn't help either. I know BC getting swept by UNH doesn't help the profile either, but that one brings me such glee, I'm not mad at the Golden Eagles just yet.

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