I know we're all riding high off the football team's winning streak, but it's Friday which means it's time to buckle down and prepare for a weekend series against an instate opponent looking to take the Gophers down a notch. Minnesota faces off against MSU-Mankato (4-2; 2-2 WCHA) at Mariucci this weekend. I wanted to get a better sense of how things are going for our former WCHA brethren, so I turned to Chris Dilks from SB Nation College Hockey for some answers.
The Daily Gopher: Talk to me about the goalie situation. Stephon Williams has gotten 6 of the 8 regular season starts this year, but Cole Huggins looks like he's been doing well between the pipes, winning the most recent WCHA Rookie of the Week while sitting at 2nd in the country in goals against (1.11) and save % (96.4). Is Cole stealing the starting job or should Gophers fans expect to see both guys splitting time this weekend?
Chris Dilks: Stephon Williams came into the season as the clear-cut number one starter for Minnesota State, and was expected to be the top goalie in the WCHA. But he has really struggled to start the season. Part of it could be lingering effects of missing time this off-season due to hip surgery. Part of it is that the defense in front of him just hasn't been as good as it was last year, and he's been left hung out to dry a lot. He's not seeing a ton of shots, but the shots he is seeing are of extremely high-quality, which is a recipe for ugly goalie stats.
Meanwhile, Cole Huggins has looked very solid every time he's gotten the opportunity to play. When I saw him start last Saturday, I wouldn't say any of his 33 saves were particularly spectacular or remarkable, but he came up strong every time he needed to. It might just be a case where his team plays a little more conservatively with him in net.
In any case, Williams is performing below expectation, while Huggins has exceeded expectations, which has turned MSU's goaltending situation into a two-horse race. Huggins has likely earned the right start Friday's game after his play last weekend. The starter for Saturday night likely depends on how Friday night goes. Huggins is known for having a pretty even temperament, so the big crowd shouldn't rattle him, but Mariucci can be a tough place for any goalie to play if the Gophers get some momentum and really get the crowd into things.
TDG: The Mavericks appear to be struggling a little to start the year. Their scoring defense is near the bottom of both the WCHA and the country, while their scoring offense on the low end of the WCHA and only middle of the pack nationally. Where do the Mavericks excel and what areas are holding them back? How do you think they match up with Minnesota?
CD: You're not wrong in thinking they've struggled so far this year. All year long, it has just felt like something is missing that is keeping this team from clicking on all cylinders. Losing senior captains Eriah Hayes and Tyler Elbrecht seems to have hurt the team more than most people thought. They also haven't had much luck in terms of injuries. They lost senior forward Zach Lehrke before the season started when Lehrke had to retire from hockey due to a strange muscle cramping condition. They also lost senior defenseman Josh Nelson, likely for the year, just three games into the season due to a hip injury. Neither of those drew a lot of attention, but both were hard-working, reliable seniors, and important pieces on Minnesota State's power play. In addition, various bumps and bruises have kept a bunch of guys out of the line-up at various points. Last weekend, the Mavericks dressed a full line-up of 18 skaters both nights, but had no healthy scratches. They should get some players back for this series, but they've really just been trying to patch things together.
TDG: Mankato seems seem to end up in the box A LOT (19.2 min per game - 4th nationally), but a strong PK (87.5% - T 8th nationally) seems to be covering for that. Minnesota's power play hasn't been dominant like in previous seasons, but they have the talent to make a team pay for going shorthanded. Do you think the Mavericks tendency to end up in the box will hurt them this weekend?
CD: I think the penalty number is a bit misleading because they had some inflated numbers in their first series at Providence, which by multiple accounts, was a bit of an officiating gong show. Take out those two games, and they're at 13 PIMs/GM, which is right about in the middle-of-the-pack nationally. Their penalty kill has been good, but they're probably better off not testing Minnesota's power play.
The more important special teams battle this weekend is how the Maverick power play performs against the Gophers. Last year, Minnesota State converted at a 22.9% rate on the power play. This year, they've been an abysmal 9.3%, with a couple critical shorthanded goals against mixed in there. If they can get their power play performing like it's capable of, they're going to have a much better shot at winning these games.
TDG: Thoughts on the new WCHA so far?
CD: Well, it's definitely not what it once was. Overall, I think the league has been a little more competitive out-of-conference than some people thought. But there's still the issues that everyone expected. There was a noticeable dip in the quality of officiating going between an NCHC game last Friday night, and a WCHA game Saturday night. The Alaska schools are still really far away, and the travel in the conference is still insane. With all the new western conferences, it's probably going to take three or four years before we really know how sustainable this experiment is.
On the positive side, a lot of people expected Minnesota State to run away with the WCHA, and up to this point, it's looking that that won't be the case. Outside of a rebuilding Alabama-Huntsville program, every program has shown signs that they could compete for the league title this year, which should make for a really fun race once we get to the end of the season.
Thanks to Chris for taking the time and sharing some of his MSU-Mankato knowledge! If you aren't already, be sure to follow Chris on Twitter (@ChrisDilks) and check out the great work being done by the crew over at the SB Nation College Hockey blog (@SBNCollegePuck).