While they're not mathematically eliminated from the MacNaughton Cup chase, Minnesota's 2-0 shutout loss to Denver last night essentially ended their hopes of repeating as WCHA regular season champs. The Gopher loss, coupled with St Cloud's 5-3 win over Michigan Tech, puts the Huskies four points up with just three to play. That means if St Cloud sweeps Tech tonight (seems VERY possible) Minnesota would need to win out against Denver and sweep Bemidji next weekend just to tie. Oh, and that's also hoping St Cloud gets swept by Wisconsin next weekend too. The probability now is Minnesota won't win the regular season crown, and need to worry about just hanging onto a top 3 spot in the conference, as with UND beating Bemidji last night, they've now jumped the Gophers into second place with 32 points, leaving Minnesota third with 31.
But first things first, the Gophers need to get their own house in order to have hopes of doing anything in the postseason. They looked lost, and were outplayed by DU yet again, as the Pioneers have simply owned Minnesota of late. Per GPL the Gophers have beaten DU just once in their past 10 tries. Um, yeah- that's not good. They were out shot on their own power play, managing just two while giving up eight, as they went 0-5, and were outshot for the game 36-33. Adam Wilcox made 35 saves, his second highest total on the season, yet he's had a penchant lately for giving up big rebounds, and the lone goal was because of just that. After two scoreless periods, just 18 seconds into the third he failed to control what looked like an easy shot, the rebound bounced right to Shawn Ostrow, who tapped in his 11th of the season. It would be the only goal DU would need, though they added an empty-netter late to end it.
Look, I get Wilcox has come back to earth a bit, and the goal last night was a bad one, and maybe he has had trouble controlling rebounds of late, but he is far from the big issue on this club right now. Since trouncing UND 5-4 on January 18th for what was their sixth win in a row, the Gophers are just 4-4-2 since. They've scored more than three goals in just four of their past 10, and in their past four Wilcox has given up just 2 goals twice and 3 goals twice, and yet the Gophers are 1-2-1. The offense is just not clicking right now, including their once vaunted power play, which is just 1 for it's last 16 chances. This remains a forward group full of elite skill for the college hockey level, but after last night, it's now clear that Don Lucia needs to shuffle his lines, and for the first time in two years that means breaking up Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau.
Rau, the team's second leading scorer with 32 points and third leading goal scorer with 14, has just not produced since notching a hat trick against UAA back in mid January. In the 11 games since then, Rau has just one goal and six assists, and last night was the seventh time in that stretch- and fourth in his past five- that he's been held without a point. Bjugstad, who leads the team with 16 goals and is third in points with 30, has four goals and four assists in those same 11 games since the UAA series. That's not bad, but it's off the point-a-game pace we're used to seeing him at, and below the performance of what we'd thought we'd get from the pre-season Hobey Baker award candidate and WCHA Player of the Year.
I'm not advocating to drop them to the fourth line or bench them, just to split them up and see how they work with somebody else. The Gophers have the luxury of a wealth of offensive talent in their top six, and essentially have two top lines because center Erik Haula and wings Sam Warning, Zach Budish, and Nate Condon are so good. Rau and Warning are both smaller players at 5'9 or shorter, so you're not likely to play those two on a line. But at least put Rau with the team's leading scorer in Haula and move Warning with Bjuggy then figure out the other other wings from there.
Heck, maybe Lucia really changes it up by throwing Seth Ambroz, Christian Isackson or Travis Boyd into the mix as well, but as it stands, it's high time for Lucia to break up his top pairing of Bjugstad and Rau and see if he can get something, anything, to click.