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Minnesota Gopher Hockey vs Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks Weekend Preview

Gophers and Mavs battle this weekend with a home-and-home series. The U took both games last season, but MSU won five of the previous six before that. Mankato is ALWAYS fired up to play Minnesota, and if the Gophers want a sweep, they better be too.

Last weekend was a bit of a strange one for Minnesota Gopher hockey. The Gophers played an exhibition game that didn't count against the USA U18 squad, and they played like it didn't count as the game ended in a 2-2 tie. Granted, head coach Don Lucia sat out four players to rest and recuperate, including 1st liner Kyle Rau and 2nd liner Sam Warning, but you'd like to think the #2 team in the country could put away a U18 team. Sunday afternoon (a strange time for a college hockey game if there ever was one) the Gophers beat Canisius 1-0 in a game that was both as close and not as close as the score indicated. Minnesota dominated play, scoring 12 seconds in on a goal by Kyle Rau, and looked ready to run away with it like they did against Michigan State. But after that first one went in, they couldn't solve Griffins goalie Tony Capobianco, who stopped the next 41 shots and kept his team in a game they had no business being in.

And that's the thing- despite the Gophers getting 42 shots and only allowing 20, Canisius was still in it the whole way. Adam Wilcox wasn't tested often but came up large when he had to, and his performance may- I repeat MAY- have locked up the #1 goalie job for himself. Junior Michael Shibrowski had his second straight shaky start in the Friday night tie with USA U18, and while Lucia has refused to name a #1 goalie, don't be surprised to see Wilcox between the pipes when the series opens Friday night at Mariucci. And if Wilcox plays well, then he probably get the start Saturday night too in Mankato.

As it was, tough to take much away from the weekend considering one was an exhitbition and the other the puck couldn't seem to find the back of the net despite plenty of opportunities. Minnesota also played short-handed against Canisius as both 2nd line winger Sam Warning and frosh defenseman Brady Skjei didn't play because of injury. Both should be back for this weekend, and in an interesting move, Lucia replaced Warning on the second line with...defenseman Ben Marshall? Lucia has been using an extra defenseman on the 4th line wing all season, but it was, yes, a little strange to see one of his top six defensemen in Marshall playing second line. Lucia's reasoning made sense, as he explained after that he didn't want to break up his third line because they've been playing so well together, and liked what he was seeing from his fourth liners together on that line, so he decided to skate Marshall up. Certainly a creative way to solve a problem, but assuming Warning is ready to go, expect to see Marshall back on the blue line and with Warning out again Marshall will remain on the 2nd line wing.

So that's more than enough about last weekend. Looking ahead to this weekend the Gophers play the ol' home-and-home with Mankato, and it promises to be competitive. The U is always better than Mankato on paper, yet the games are always close and, per Roman, the Mavericks have fared very well against the Gophers of late:

The Gophers lead the all-time series with MSU 30-7-6, but the Mavericks were on a 5-1-0 roll until losing twice to the Gophers last season.

I did a double-take when I read that: there's NO WAY that before last year Mankato took 5 of the past 6. Way. It happened. As we are often reminded, for the Minnesota schools their annual games with the Gophers are still a really big freaking deal, and the ol' cliche to "throw the records out the window" very much applies, especially with the Mavs. Friday night is when the Gophers have had trouble showing up but at least it's at home. Saturday night they usually play well but it's in Mankato which should be a mad house, so expect some good hockey this weekend.

As Roman also notes in that same post, MSU is struggling to score right now, getting beat up 5-1 and 5-1 last weekend to St Cloud. They returned three of their top four scorers but they're yet to get on track for "2-2-2 MSU" (that so rhymes):

Hopes were high in Mankato for this team, loaded with young, promising forwards. But two of them are not scoring goals.

Matt Leitner, a sophomore center from Los Alamitos, CA., led the Mavericks in assists and points last season. He had 11 goals, 18 assists and 29 points. But in six games so far, he has one goal and five assists for six points.

Jean-Paul LaFontaine was a member of the WCHA all-rookie team last season and tied for the team lead in goals and was second in points. He had 13 goals -- eighth on the power play -- 15 assists and 28 points. He has one assist this season. He was the left wing on the Mavericks' second line in their last game.

It'd be a pretty swell idea for those guys NOT to get their scoring groove back this weekend, but it's going to take a top-notch effort from the Gophers to make it happen, or in this case, NOT happen. And really, isn't that the question once again with this team? What kind of effort are we going to see out of the gate Friday night? Three weeks ago against Michigan State they came out flying and rolled the Spartans. Two weeks ago against Michigan Tech they were flatter than a pancake and lost to the Huskies. When they're motivated and focused there's few, if any, teams in the country that can play with them, and Mankato isn't one of them. But of course that's the case every time these two teams plays, and yet just about every game is close, and Minnesota State has won more than their fair share the past few seasons. They will never lack focus or motivation when they play the Gophers because it's the Gophers, so matching their intensity is, always, key.

Look for Wilcox to start, and we'll see if he continues to play well, and the team should be relatively healthy, with perhaps Brady Skjei being the only question mark with Skjei back and Warning still out we'll see how the second line does with Marshall against some better competition. Puck drops at 7:07 both nights with Friday's game at Mariucci on FSN and Saturday night's title on FSN+ down in Mankato. We'll see if the Gophers are ready, because we know Mankato will be.