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Minnesota Gopher Hockey Beats Bemidji, Hosts UAA in First Round

I do believe Friday we said the series against Bemidji State would be a tough one for the Gophs, and the Beavers didn't let us down. They rarely do. They're Beavers, after all. A noble and wise animal, the official mascot of Canada. You'd expect nothing less. Heading into the series Minnesota needed just one win in two nights to clinch the 5th seed, and they were 50 seconds away Friday from that needed victory before a ridonculous hooking penalty was called on Gopher freshman Nick Bjugstad. BSU scored on the power play with 19 seconds left to force OT, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie. Bjugstad had one of the Gopher goals, and apparently used the late penalty as motivation for Saturday night, as he potted two goals- including the winner in OT- and an assist to lead Minnesota to a 3-2 victory and secure 5th spot in the WCHA.

Gopher fans (and coaches, I'm sure) have been waiting all year for this type of production from Bjugstad. The 6'4 pivot from Blaine high school was picked 15th overall in last June's NHL draft, and looked to have some trouble the first half of the season adjusting to playing against guys 3, 4, and 5 years older than him. The Don kept telling us his World Juniors appearance after Christmas boosted his confidence, but we didn't really start seeing the results until Jay Barriball went down with the ol' "lower body injury". Still, this weekend was an offensive explosion for Bjugstad that we hadn't yet seen, and it bodes well for the Gophers in the playoffs. He was the top line center both nights with Mike Hoeffel on his left and either Barriball or Nick Larson on his right, and he'll undoubtedly continue in that role in the playoffs. I would imagine we'll see Barriball start on the first line, but it's a nice problem to have when Larson and Jake Hansen are playing well and pushing your senior captain for a top forward spot.

We had talked last week that the Gophers now have a nice 1-2 punch of top lines, with freshman center Eric Haula and senior LW Jacob Cepis as a solid second line combo, but I really should have talked more about the third line, because they've been good of late too. Senior center Patrick White never came close to the high billing he came into school with, but he's quietly been very productive as the third line center over the last month, with four goals and three assists in his past seven games. Just as important for a third line guy, he's been a plus player over that stretch too, proving he can play in both ends. With Barriball back, the Gophers have three good lines Lucia can throw at teams in any situation, and that secondary scoring will be huge in the playoffs.

More after the jump...

So thanks to the efforts of Bjugstad, White, and the rest of the team, the Gophers will host as a five seed this weekend. Their opponent? Somewhat of a surprise, it's Alaska Anchorage, who swept Minnesota State down in Mankato, and leapfrogged St Cloud State in the process to finish in 8th place in the WCHA. This is the best possible matchup for Minnesota, and while a rivalry series with St Cloud or Wisconsin would have certainly been fun, I feel MUCH better about the Goph's chances of taking two of three from the Seawolves than I would have against the Huskies or BADgers. Not that they couldn't have beaten SCSU or UW, I'm just not as nervous about UAA. And yes, I am well aware the Seawolves came in here at the end of January and split with the Gophers at Mariucci. Remember that? When "the Sky Was Falling" in Gopherland, and we thought Minnesota would struggle to even host a first round WCHA series, let alone be favored in one? The Gophers are a vastly different and better team than the one that lost 1-0 on a cold and miserable January Saturday night.

For one thing, Lucia and his staff have seen UAA's best ploy of routinely dropping four guys into the defensive zone and waiting for the Gophers to make a mistake as they did in that 1-0 loss. So they'll be ready for that. And for another thing, this is a confident bunch who know they can score and play with anybody in the country. They're hosting a playoff series at Mariucci, where as Roman notes they're 26-1, and they SHOULD have confidence they can sweep this series and advance to the Final Five. I know as Gopher fans it's been difficult to have, you know, confidence in any of our Big 3 teams, but you should have every right to believe this is a Gopher team capable of beating UAA and making a run in the Final Five. NCAA tourney? It's definitely a possibility, although they're going to have to play their way in, as despite taking three of four points from Bemidji State, they only gained one spot in the Pairwise Rankings, tied for 18th with Maine. That means they still have to jump CC and Western Michigan (tied for 14th), and Boston U and something called Rensselaer (tied for 16th), to get that all-important top 14 automatic berth. All of those teams are obviously in their respective conference tournaments, and are likely to win their first round series too, so for Minnesota to go the tourney, they're going to need to beat UAA, and then get some revenge on the 4 vs 9 winner, either Minnesota-Duluth or St Cloud State. The Bulldogs are hosting, but keep in mind St Cloud went up there a month ago and thumped UMD 8-2 and tied them 3-3. I expect Duluth to win, but wouldn't be surprised to see the Huskies pull the upset. Again let me say how happy I am the Gopher drew UAA and not SCSU in the first round.

So for this week, put aside the Pairwise talk and concentrate on Alaska-Anchorage. Tickets go on sale today at noon (as in, right now. Follow the link or call 612-624-8080) and are $63 a seat for the weekend. If there's any single game tickets remaining, those go on sale Wednesday. At the moment, the WCHA website lists 7:07pm start times for all three games, but we'll see if those change at all in the coming days.