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Minnesota Gophers Hockey: Preview of Weekend Series vs. Denver Pioneers

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And so the fun continue for Gopher hockey this weekend, as the Denver Pioneers, the 4th ranked team in the country and tied for 1st in the WCHA standings, roll into town. An by "fun" I mean...well ok probably not fun. Not fun at all. The Gophs come into this weekend all-by-their-lonesome in 8th place in the WCHA with 19 points, one behind Colorado College, and yes, somehow Alaska-Anchorage. UAA (and Minnesota State) have played 22 conference games, while the Gophers and everyone else have played 20, so right now catching the Seawolves isn't as big a worry, but with the way both the Gophers and Dr. Jeckyl-and-Mr.-Hyde Colorado College have played, it could be soon. For now let's assume (dangerous, I know) UAA struggles to get more than 5 or 6 points in their remaining six conference games @ UND, vs. UNO, and @ Minnesota State. That would put them around 26 points. The Gophs then would need at least 7 points in their final 8 games vs. Denver, @ Wisconsin, vs. Michigan Tech and @ Bemidji State to tie UAA (they SHOULD get 8 points just from the Michigan Tech and Bemidji series alone, but we thought they'd sweep UAA too).

Since the two teams split their only two meetings, the next tie-breaker is conference wins, and assuming that number's even, then it's goal differential. Right now the Gophs are even with 59 goals for and against while UAA is a whopping -14. Think of how much Minnesota has struggled to score this season, and yet they'd have to be much worse both offensively and defensively for UAA to make up ground in goal differential. So right now I'm not worried about them catching the Seawolves in the standings.

But Colorado College? The Gophers came out of the holiday break holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with CC because of their sweep of the Tigers in Denver the last weekend in October. With CC also facing a tough schedule, I for one, wasn't too worried about being able to hang onto the sixth playoff seed, which is the last one that can host a first-round series. Ooops. CC stumbled out of the break while Minnesota split with UND, but since then the Tigers, who had been swept by the Gophs and have somehow lost 3 of 4 to UAA, splith with both UND and Denver (and have taken two of four on the year from DU). The Gophs crapped the bed against UAA, losing a needed sweep, and then after a valiant effort in a 2-2 tie last Friday against UMD, got outscored by Bulldogs forward Mike Connolly 5-4 as Duluth won 6-4. Not that winning in Duluth is easy...but if you can split in Grand Forks? In any case, only getting three points the past two weeks now have the Gophers one point behind CC, and while the Tigers certainly could stumble somewhere along the way, it's imperative the Gophers get points in their remaining series (and, of course, actually sweep the teams you're supposed to like Michigan Tech and Bemidji!).

So with all of that said, the Gophs come into the weekend against DU having given up their most goals in a game since November, AND facing the possibility of not having their captain, and leading scorer (12-11-23), Jay Barriball in the lineup. Barriball sustained a "lower body injury" last weekend, did not practice yesterday, and remains uncertain for this weekend. The last thing a struggling Gopher squad needs it be without their captain, especially when the team has struggled to score (the Gophs are sixth in the WCHA with 59 goals) and have been asking goalie Kent Patterson to stand on his head (they're in a three-way tie for 7th with 59 goals given up). They also really need him against a team as good as DU...

The Pioneers skate into Mariucci this weekend tied for the top spot with UMD with 29 points, and tied with UND for most goals with 70. Whereas the Gophs only have two players with at least 20 points (Barriball and fellow senior forward Jacob Cepis, who has exactly 20), DU's leading scorer, sophomore Drew Shore, has 31 points (16 G-15A), and five other players have at least 20. And of those top six, only two are seniors, and of their top 9 scorers, four are freshmen and two sophomores. Considering all the Pioneers lost last year, it's a testament to their coaching and development that they're at the top of the league again with such a young roster. DU's top three freshmen forwards Jason Zucker (Wild draft pick), Beau Bennett (Pittsburgh) and Nick Shore have combined for 58 points, including 27 goals. Sure, most of that has been Zucker, with 17 goals and 28 points (WCHA rookie of the year, anyone? Is it even close? And would he be the most talented offensive player on the Wild right now if they called him up?), but Bennett and Shore are even, or outproducing, Minnesota's top two freshman Erik Haula (another Wild pick- 3 G-13 A-16 pts) and Nate Condon (does COA stand for Colorado? Shouldn't it be COL? Anywho Condon has 7-6-13). Minnesota's third leading freshmen, who was supposed to be their best, is Florida first round pick Nick Bjugstad, who has just 2 goals and 9 points. I know it's not easy for freshmen to jump right into the WCHA, but don't you have to wonder why DU's kids are playing so well and Minnesota's aren't? Just a little?

Anyway, DU can score with the best of them, and their defense ain't too shabby either. Their 51 goals against in 20 games gives them 2.55 GAA per game, good for fifth in the conference, and their +19 goal differential is third best in the WCHA. The Pioneers are aggressive, as they average the third most penalty minutes (14.7 to Minnesota's 13.2), but they counter that with the third best penalty kill (83.8%). With all of their fire power, DU's power play actually hasn't been great, ranking just 6th in league play at 17.9%, but if there was a weekend to get that right, it's probably against Minnesota's woeful PK, which is 11th of 12 in the conference. So is their power play, and only Michigan Tech ranks as having worse special teams than Minnesota.

In net Denver has been splitting duties, as yet another freshman, Sam Brittain (a Panthers draft pick) is 4th in the league in both goals against (2.26 GAA) and save percentage (.924). He got the bulk of the playing time early in the year, but has been splitting games of late with sophomore Adam Murray. The tandem does not equal Kent Patterson, but considering DU has lost just four conference games all year (two to CC, and one each to UND and UMD), it's obviously been good enough.

So how does Minnesota steal points from Denver? Stop me if you've heard this before, because it's just about the same thing every weekend: Kent Patterson continues to see more rubber than I-94 between Minneapolis and St Paul- and stops almost all of it, the Gophs' special teams actually need to be special, and they need someone- anyone- not named Jay Barriball (Nick Bjugstad...paging Nick Bjugstad...) to score some goals. Game 1 starts Friday at 7pm, but will be tape-delayed on FSN due to the stupid TWolves (honestly, who gets more viewers? The hapless, hopeless, horribly-run Wolves, or we'll leave out disparaging names and just say Gopher hockey?), and Saturday's game starts at 5pm as part of a Hockey Day in Minnesota doubleheader on FSN (the Wild and Blues are at 8pm at the X).