First off, congratulations to Gopher defenseman Mike Reilly, assistant coach and former Gopher player Grant Potulny and everyone at USA Hockey for winning gold at the World Junior tournament in Russia over the weekend. Huge win for the American program, especially for a team that was not a favorite to medal, let alone win it all, coming in. They got great goaltending and defense, and a forward group that saved their best hockey for the medal round. Now everybody goes back to their college or junior (or for JT Miller the AHL) and start the second half of their year.
For Reilly and teammate and roommate at that tourney Mario Lucia, who oh by the way is Gopher head coach Don Lucia's son, they're jumping right back into things with a big tilt tomorrow night at Mariucci Arena as the #1 ranked Golden Gophers host the 2nd ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It hasn't been officially announced yet that both guys are playing, but I'd almost be more suprised if they didn't at this point. Especially Lucia, who apparently flew back yesterday and is staying with his folks for a day or so, as you'd expect with a home-coming like this. Can't think Mario would miss this opportunity to not only play his dad, but a bunch of guys on the Minnesota squad I'm sure he knows from growing up and playing the game around the State of Hockey. Mario may not have played much at all in the World Junior tournament, but he's been a huge part of Notre Dame's success thus far. He's recovered well from a broken leg suffered in late August, and since his debut in mid November, has been a real catalyst for the Irish offense. He was named the CCHA Rookie of the Month for December, and on the season has 5 goals and 5 assists in just 9 games.
Obviously, you don't get to be #2 in the country and 14-4 overall on the strength of just one player, or as it turns out, just one Minnesotan. Edina native and team captain Anders Lee, who started his high school career with St Thomas Academy and finished it with the Edina Hornets before one season of juniors in Green Bay before joining the Irish in 2010, paces Notre Dame with 17 points in 18 games (11G 6A). The former Mr Hockey finalist (as well as Minnesota's FOOTBALL Gatorade Player of the Year back in 2008) Lee is one of those few highly touted Minnesota recruits who gets away from the U, and as a sixth round pick of the Islanders back in 2009, has done very well in South Bend.
The junior is one of six players with double-digit points this year, which includes three other junior forwards- TJ Tynan, Jeff Costello, and Bryan Rust- with at least 14 points. The third Minnesotan on the squad, senior forward and Apple Valley native Nick Larson, has two goals and an assist in 18 games. The Irish have scored 58 goals on the season (a respectable 3.22 per game) and have a whopping 42 in just 11 conference games (3.82 per CCHA contest).
Notre Dame's defense has been good at both scoring and defending as well. Their top scoring defenseman is soph Robbie Russo (4-11-15) and have three other defensemen with at least 7 points. They've also done a very good job of keeping the puck out of their own net as they've allowed 29 goals on the season (1.61 overall, which is second best in the country) and just 16 in CCHA play (1.45 per). Junior goaltender Steven Summerhays has appeared in 17 of their 18 games and has posted the fifth best GAA in the country at 1.53 and an impressive .937 save percentage. Notre Dame has some quality wins thus far including against North Dakota, Western Michigan, UNO, Northern Michigan, and a sweep of Michigan (who, yes, are not playing well right now. But it's still Michigan). Three of their four losses- to Duluth early in the season, Western Michigan at home, and North Dakota- all came at home, with the loan roadie loss to some team called Boston College 3-1 in early November.
The Irish are a good club and will be a great test for Minnesota, but if you're looking at those wins and losses and aren't blown away by them, well, that's the kind of year it's been across college hockey. Boston College was the clear front-runner until Minnesota blew them out, and there's not a really dominant or overly impressive team left. Notre Dame is dominating the CCHA thus far in a year where Michigan and Michigan State are both down, but they won't play the clear #2 team in that conference in Miami of Ohio (6th in the latest polls) until mid February. Notre Dame is definitely a quality hockey team, but they don't carry the same level of buzz and anticipation coming in that BC did, which makes me nervous for this one. You could tell they were fired up to play the Eagles and there's the risk of a let-down against the Irish before conference play starts this weekend with UAA, and of course, the risk of looking ahead even past that to UND, which will be quite possibly the last regular season conference series ever between the two schools.
Not saying the Gophers WILL look past this one, just saying there's potential for it, so let's hope Minnesota comes out flying like they did against BC. Obviously there's plenty to play for here and not just as a tune-up for conference play or to defend their #1 ranking, but this would definitely be another statement win for the Gophers in a season that hasn't presented itself with many of those opportunities. Yeah BC were without Johnny Gaudreau and some top D-men, but 8-1 is 8-1 and that was a statement to the college hockey world. Beating the #1 and #2 teams in the land in back-to-back games would be an awesome way to start 2013 and get Minnesota rolling into the new year. Leading scorer (9-17-26 in 17 games) Erik Haula's broken digit puts a damper on things, but it'll give the Gophers an opportunity to move some people around and play them in higher pressure spots with their leading scorer out, which is never a bad thing. Haula is supposed to be back for North Dakota next weekend, but in the meantime, look for Nate Condon to get first crack at Haula's second line center spot between captain Zach Budish and Sam Warning. It'll be interesting to see who takes his spot on the top line in what has been a revolving door of people getting the chance to play with second leading scorer's Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau (both with 19 points).
Another thing to watch is what Lucia does with his defensive corps assuming Reilly plays against Notre Dame. Justin Holl should remain on a wing, but will Jake Parenteau, who played pretty well in Reilly's absence, go back to the wing, or will it be someone else? It's just scary how much depth and talent there is on defense that a guy with Reilly's skills and skating is out and it's barely missed. You can't help but watch freshman goalis Adam Wilcox, who was out of his mind in 2012 with a 1.63 GAA and .927 save percentage. If he wasn't Minnesota's best player in the first half he was arguably their most important, which is pretty incredible when you think that 1) Wilcox is a freshman and 2) this team has a ton of talent up and down the roster. We'll see if Adam can pick up in 2013 where he left off in 2012.
As always, special teams will be a factor in the game, as Minnesota's nationally 3rd ranked power play (22 goals in 91 chances for 24%) goes up against Notre Dame's sixth ranked penalty kill (ND's killed 63 of 70 chances for 90%). Not to be forgotten is Minnesota's seventh ranked PK (57-64 89%) against a Notre Dame PP that's struggled a bit (15/83 18%), but with the talent they have, you certainly don't want to give the Irish opportunities with the man-advantage.
Give Minnesota the overall advantage in this one, especially playing on the big sheet at Mariucci where the Gophers have lost just once (to UNO back in early December), but expect a beauty of a game between the top two teams in the country in a rare Tuesday night college hockey game. It'd obviously be a big win and statement game for both programs, so tune it to find out who starts off 2013 with a W. Tune into one of the best play-by-play voices in all of hockey for Doug McLeod at 7pm either on TV on FSN+ or on the radio on 1500 ESPN.