Gopher Hockey: Bringing Home the Honeycrisp Trophy!

The Gophers played two close games against Michigan State. While the outcome may not have been what we hoped for, the Gophers still pulled out four conference points.

Friday

Friday night’s game began evenly. The teams came out at about the same pace, matching each other in shots on goal (pretty much) in the period. The difference in the period was two defensive miscues in the Minnesota zone.

The first goal came after two Gophers collided, which left Adam Wilcox (vote for him for the Hobey Baker Award here!) essentially undefended against Matt Berry and Michael Ferrantino. I heard some grumbling about Wilcox’s approach on the play because he challenged Berry, leaving Ferrantino with a wide-open goal mouth after a pass. I think that criticism is a little unjust. With the play coming out of the corner, and because Berry came around the back of the net, I’m pretty sure Wilcox had no idea he was there. While Adam is an excellent goaltender, I don’t think he has the ability to see out of the back of his head or around corners.

I’m still not sure how Villiam Haag’s goal went in. I know that Wilcox was screened by his Jake Bischoff, and I know that Bischoff was pretty much covering the near post. Somehow, Haag’s shot found a route to the back of the net inside that near post. If I had to assign blame for the goal, I would assign it to Bischoff, it was an extremely precise shot. It was either very lucky or very skillful. Either way, we were looking at a 2-0 deficit to the Spartans on home ice.

Thankfully, the Gophers scored before the end of the period. Hudson Fasching is becoming a real problem for teams on the power play. The Gophers last big-man forward, Nick Bjugstad, made his name hammering one-timers for power play goals. Mr. Fasching has started showing that he’s pretty adroit at planting himself in front of the goalie and cleaning up rebounds. He did exactly that to make bring the Gophers within a goal just before the end of the period.

In the second, the Gophers would tilt the ice towards Michigan State’s excellent goaltender Jake Hildebrand. He would make thirteen saves in the period, keeping the Spartans’ lead intact. His high level of play would be a theme for the weekend.

Justin Kloos would rescue the evening with a deflection goal just over five minutes into the period. I was confident that the goal would stand through the replay review. There was not distinct kicking motion that put the puck in the net. The puck went off his skate and in, no doubt, but he would need Spiderman-like reflexes to do it intentionally. The incoming shot was so fast that he basically had no time to react. A certain television color-commentator fell victim to the classic trap of slow-motion replay. Slowed way-down, you could make yourself believe that Kloos kicked the puck in. At full speed, it was obvious that there was no kicking motion.

The Gophers managed only five shots on net in the third period. That statistic surprised me at first, but after thinking about it, the Spartans probably blocked eight or nine attempted shots in the period, and the Gophers probably launched two or three wide of the net. If you watched either of the games this weekend, you know the Spartans block A LOT of shots.

The Spartans outshot the Gophers in overtime 3-1, but the game would still end in a tie. Wait; there was a shootout too, which the Spartans won. Writing about shootouts is about as exciting as watching them, so I’ll just say this: shootouts are stupid. I wish the Gophers had picked up the extra point for the conference standings, but they didn’t.

I’m sure that the Minnesota locker room was not a happy place after the game Friday night. Aside from the two miscues I discussed above, the Gophers played a sloppy game by their standards. They didn’t dominate the game in the manner that most people expected. They were also playing without the services of Ben Marshall, which is a big blow to the defense. Still, they didn’t play horribly, and they managed to scratch out a tie against a team that plays excellent defense and has an excellent goaltender.


Saturday

I have no idea what was said in the Gopher locker room after Friday’s game, or before Saturday’s game for that matter. What I do know is the team came out of the gate Saturday on fire. I don’t think there’s any disputing that they dominated Michigan State for 15 of the first 20 minutes, and outplayed the Spartans on the other five. They piled seventeen shots on net in the period. In contrast to the previous evening, they got the puck through the shot-blockers and onto goalie, resulting in more than a couple mad scrambles in front of Hildebrand. He was mostly equal to the task, stopping sixteen of the seventeen shots.

The Gophers had an apparent goal called back after a replay review, but they would strike a second time shortly thereafter. Kyle Rau managed to scoop-shovel the puck over Hildebrand’s shoulder less than seven minutes into the game. It would end up being the game winner as the goalies would take over the game from that point.

The Gophers would pour 38 shots onto Hildebrand. He improved his save percentage to .929 in the two games against one of the best offenses in the nation. He is a monster in the net, and is easily the most valuable player on the Spartan roster. I was very impressed with his play this weekend. He makes the Spartans a scary team to play, especially in a one-and-done tournament situation, like the fast approaching B1G Ten Tournament. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they’re still below .500 on the year and have virtually no hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament where Hildebrand could pitch a few upset specials.

The real star of this game, however, was Adam Wilcox. He was only tested 19 times, but he was equal to the task on every one and picked up his third shutout of the year. Obviously, Hildebrand faced more shots in this one, but Wilcox played the perfect game. His value to the Gophers is bordering on immeasurable.

The Gophers didn’t pile up gaudy goal totals in this game, but it was a much more complete effort than the Friday game, and much closer to what we all expected going into the weekend: domination by the Gopher skaters and battle between two very talented keepers.

I said in my weekend preview that anything other than six points would be a disappointment in this series. I stand by that. I would have liked a six point weekend, but you have to appreciate the grittiness the team displayed on Friday night. They did not play a good first period. They found themselves down by two goals against a team that plays very good defense, but they found a way to battle back and tie the game up. When it comes to tournament time, the OT periods will be longer than five minutes, and there are not shootouts to suffer. In that situation, I’ll take the Gophers offensive talent against the Spartans defense every time. On Saturday, they dominated the game from start to finish. They looked like a national champion contender.


Perspective

The below-average performance on Friday is what causes Gopher fans to go pear-shaped from time to time. After the North Star, another blog nearly found itself in full meltdown mode after the game against UMD. So, in case you’re interested, here’s the perspective that keeps me calm through the ups and downs of the season.

This is a very young team. They play inconsistently from time to time because they’re very young and presumably not accustomed to the level of competition they’re going to see every game. They make mistakes in the defensive zone, make poor passes, and don’t get the puck in deep enough when they’re changing lines. It can be very frustrating to watch at times because we all know how talented they are. We find ourselves in this enviable situation: we can find reasons to complain after 6-2 wins, and we’re disappointed when we don’t win every game by four goals.

Well, you can’t win every game by four goals. Sometimes you have to battle out a 1-0 win, or come back from behind to eke out a tie against a team playing over its own head. This Gopher team has been able to do that this year. Even when they haven’t played well, they’ve played with determination. They’ve only lost two games this year. Enjoy the ride, Gopher fans. This is about as good as it can get for the regular season.

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