If you follow the Gophers, you know by now how things went against the Irish last Saturday: thoroughly outplayed for the better part of two periods putting them in a 4-1 hole with 5 minutes left. As the fans start heading for the exits, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish score 31 second apart to make it 4-3 with about 3 minutes to go. Time would run out on a furious Gopher rally, which had to leave folks wondering- where was that effort for the first 55 minutes?
Good question, and one of a few this loss raises as we head into the second half of the WCHA schedule this weekend on the road...in Grand Forks. Don't look now (and I tend to look or think or speak of
the Sioux as little as possible) but since being swept by the Gophers and then splitting with Bemidji State in early November, UND is 7-1-1, with the loss in OT to Nebraska-Omaha, and the tie against Harvard. Two months ago they were struggling, but they've started looking very much like the Sioux clubs we always hate. But more on them later in the week.
For today, a few questions surrounding your varsity hockey club from Dinkytown. I wrote a pretty glowing review of the first half of the season, so I'm not about to say a one goal loss to one of the top teams in hockey (that would be Notre Dame) means it's time to panic or that the sky is falling or that the second half it going to be a slide back down the slippery slope to mediocrity. But it does raise a few issues to ponder (and I don't mean Christian Ponder)...
We know Bjugstad and Kyle Rau will score, but the other lines need to keep putting the biscuit in the basket (not to be confused with putting the lotion in the basket if you're Buffalo Bill) to take some pressure off the top line. The absence of those two fine forwards for the holiday tournament was noticeable as guys were asked to play some different roles and out of their comfort zones. In the first game against an overmatched Niagara club they had no problems but against a quality opponent in Northeastern, the results were less than stellar. Small sample size, sure, but it's worth noting. Zach Budish rounds out the top scoring line, and we'll see if a bigger second half is coming for him. Playing with Bjugstad and Rau the opportunities will certainly be there. The third line of captain Taylor Matson, sophomore Nate Condon, and whomever else they throw on the wing have been consistently good, and provided the loan early goal against Notre Dame. Yeah but what about Erik Haula and the second line you ask? Haula is only one point back of Bjugstad?!? What's the problem? Glad you asked...
I like Haula a lot, but he's pretty much disappeared since November began. Through the first seven games of the year, which took us through almost the entire month October, Haula led the NATION in scoring with 17 points. In seven games. That's CRAZY! And completely unsustainable. We knew that, sure, but the drop from that to where Haula's been the past two months has been shocking. After a gangbuster October he's managed just seven points in his past 16 games. Not 7 goals- 7 points total in his past 16, with just two goals. You need more from your number 2 center. He may be playing hurt, or that might be something else at play here, but the Gophers need Haula to find his mojo he had in October if they want to win the conference and make a playoff run in March. It's just that simple. Matson's a perfect #3 center, but he's not a #2, and there's nobody even remotely ready to step into that role. It needs to be Haula. It has to be Haula. Hopefully it will be Haula.
Few teams can skate with the Gophers, and fewer and fewer teams are trying- and it's proving successful. Why bother trying to go end-to-end with them when you can drop that third and fourth guy back, keep Minnesota's skaters- and their shots- to the outside, and wait for the Gophs to make mistakes. Notre Dame's a top 5 team, one of the few capable of taking it to the U, and they did. I'll also be interested to see how
the Sioux attack this weekend, and whether they try and be more aggressive and uptempo at The Ralph than they were at Mariucci. But most of the teams Minnesota will see the rest of the way will try and clog the middle and slow things down, and it'll up to the coaches and players to make adjustments and play at a different pace than they'd like to. They have the talent to make it happen, but that's only part of the equation...
Giving a crap for the full 60 minutes
GN texted me during the Notre Dame game, asking if Minnesota was always this sloppy. Not always, but far too often of late. The talent is there for this team, but the effort and intensity seems to come and go. After the great 9-1 start to the season, they're just 6-6-1 since, and the consistency of their effort has been a big reason. It reared its ugly head against Notre Dame for most of the game, and now they face their toughest four series stretch of the season: at North Dakota, home CC, at Denver, and home-and-home with St Cloud. They're going to need a full effort, and to start giving a crap from the opening faceoff to the final whistle of EVERY game if they want to keep ahold of first place in the conference, and keep their dreams alive for some very big things this season. This is a talented Minnesota squad, and they need to start playing like it all the time.