This is fun. In back-to-back games the Minnesota Golden Gophers have beaten the #1 and #2 teams in the country by a combined score of 12-2. That vaunted Gopher offense we'd been waiting to show up in the first half of the season? Oh it's here. Besides the 12 in the past two, can I interest you in 24 goals in their past five and at least four in every one of those games? Yeah, they finally found the "on" switch for their- as only Brad Childress could say- "kick ass" offense.
This certainly wasn't the domination that the win over BC was, as Notre Dame played hard and the game was close throughout, but Minnesota scored first, scored early, and rode a white-hot Adam Wilcox to another victory. Too often this year after a Gopher victory I've talked about the goals and the offense (or lack thereof) first, and thrown in Wilcox's performance as an "oh by the way" kind of thing. Well not after last night. The offense is back, and we'll get to that, but freshman Adam Wilcox has been simply incredible. Last night he stopped 22 of the 23 Irish shots he faced and the one he let in late in the first was a tough save off ND forward Jeff Costello, who drove the net hard and managed to smack the puck through Wilcox's pads and in. But that was all they would get as time and again Wilcox was there.
The save of the night, and I would argue the save of the game, was his stop in the 3rd on a breakaway of Bryan Rust. With the Gophs' up 3-1 in a tightly contested 3rd period, Rust snuck behind the D at center ice and the Irish sent him away with a great pass. He scores and Notre Dame is right back in it down one goal with over 12 minutes to play. Rust made a nice quick move to fake a shot and go right, trying to shoot the puck into the open side but Wilcox slid across and got the pad over to make the save. Simply spectacular, and it helped keep Notre Dame out and give Minnesota the win. Wilcox has been doing this all year, and while he doesn't face as many shots as most goalies thanks to Minnesota's defense and puck possession, time and again he answers the call. I'd say it's almost more difficult to do what Wilcox is doing, to face less shots and be great every time, than when you're seeing a bunch of shots and can find a rhythm.
He hasn't played like a rookie at all, and as just a freshman he already looks like not just one of the best goalies in the WCHA, but in college hockey. The numbers back it up as in 19 starts he has a microscopic 1.60 GAA and an almost .930 save percentage. If you're wondering, Kent Patterson, who was magnificent as the Gophers' starter the past two seasons, had a GAA of 2.32 and save% of .907 last season. Granted, that came over 43 games after facing more than 1000 shots in a season, but it shows the insane level Wilcox is playing at right now. No matter how good the offense or the defense, if you want to make a long playoff run in March you need a good goalie, and if Wilcox keeps playing like this, well, I like Minnesota's chances.
Back to the game against the Irish, who played Minnesota as tough as anybody this season, and still allowed four goals. Notre Dame came in with one of the top PK's in the country, and they showed why, shutting out Minnesota in 6 chances. The first two or three kills especially was the best job I've seen anybody do against the U's high-powered power play, as Minnesota had trouble just getting the puck in the zone, let alone setting up. ND is a big team who skates very well and did a great job of keeping Minnesota off kilter most of the night, and also didn't let the Gophs' dominate the puck. I didn't see any time of possession stats, but I'd have to say the zone time (excluding power plays) in each team's end looked pretty even.
What Minnesota did, as they've done the past five games, is take advantage of opportunities. The Gophers are so dangerous offensively not just because of all their speed and skill but because they can also score those gritty, tough goals around the net. Their first of the night, which just like against BC came quickly in the first, was perfect execution of a 3-on-2 as captain Zach Budish came in on the right wing and made a nice drop-pass to Nate Condon. After dropping the puck Budish got his 6'2 220+ pounds in front of Irish goalie Steve Summerhays, and Condon used the screen beautifully as he wired a shot blocker high from just above the circles to make it 1-zip not even 90 seconds in. Six minutes later that line struck again as left winger Sam Warning, the smallest guy on the ice mind you, somehow emerged from a scrum in front of the Irish goal (there were bodies strewn everywhere like a scene in Braveheart and at one point a stick was thrown 12 feet in the air) and faster than you can blink he too fired one blocker high to make it 2-0. Costello quelched the Gopher momentum before the close of the period to make it 2-1 after 1.
In the second the two teams traded punches with rushes and hits at both ends before freshman AJ Michaelson made a great play forechecking a Notre Dame defender behind the Irish net, forcing a turnover and a loose puck that bounced to Christian Isackson at the left side of the goal. With a defenseman converging on him and with very little forward motion, Isackson turned Summerhays inside out like a pretzel and shelfed one on the backhand to make it 3-1. It was such a ridiculous goal I've watched it at least 700 times on the highlights already. Seriously, look at this:
The degree of difficulty, to be able to deke a goalie like that with so little momentum, is off the charts and shows the kind of "sick mitts" Isackson possesses. Notre Dame came close, as did the Gophers a number of times, but the period ended 3-1.
In the third it was Notre Dame who was taking it to Minnesota but they just couldn't solve Wilcox, and his breakaway save seemed to turn the tide a bit, as the Gophers rallied and matched the Notre Dame pace the rest of the way. Budish scored an empty-netter to seal the victory, Minnesota's third straight and fifth in their last six outings. Notre Dame is going to be a factor in the NCAA tourney as they did an excellent job most of the night stifling the Minnesota rush and not allowing them to get up and down and fly around on the big surface at Mariucci. Still, Minnesota capitalized on the opportunities they got and Wilcox did the rest to shut down Notre Dame and get the win.
After three games in the past 30 days, the Gophs will have to play three in the next five as WCHA play starts up again Friday night with a weekend series at home against UAA. The challenge for the Gophers now, after playing two of the best teams in the country, is not to look past the Seawolves to next weekend's donnybrook with North Dakota. They need to take UAA seriously, because while the Gophers might be #1 in the country, they're only sixth right now in the WCHA (seriously), and the Gophers need every point they can get in conference play. More on that tomorrow in the series and WCHA second half preview post, but for now, enjoy the win Gopher fans and congratulations to Don Lucia and Gopher Hockey playing their best hockey against the two best teams in the country and earning two big wins.