It could be better, it could be worse. I don't know what else to say about another non-sweep weekend for Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey. Taking a six hour plane ride to Anchorage and then having to play two games in two nights in a time zone that is three hours behind your own is not an easy thing. But the Gophers are supposed to be one of the WCHA's best teams and UAA one of the worst, so a four point weekend shouldn't be out of the question. Still, while three isn't as good as four, it's better than a split.
As it stands now Minnesota is tied for fourth in the WCHA with UNO with seven points, and could drop to fifth by Sunday night as the Mavericks play the second game of their weekend with Minnesota-Duluth today (UMD sits lasts with just one point and are still looking for their first conference win, but keep in mind they've only played two conference series while most others like the Gophers have played three). Since their opening weekend pasting of Michigan State the Gophers are 4-2-1 (and that's not counting a tie with the USA U-18 team), and while their power play has been extraordinary, in their last four games they are struggling to score at even strength with just two goals in 12 periods coming at five-on-five. An injury to second line winger Sam Warning may be part of the issue, but you would still think a group with this fire power would be scoring more at even strength. The other-worldly power play has helped offset that, but they're going to need to start finding the net again at even strength with more regularity.
Defensively and in net there hasn't been a ton to complain about, especially against UAA. The Gophers barely let the Seawolves see the offensive zone let alone skate in it Friday night allowing just 16 shots and no goals, and Saturday night UAA scored two goals on 23 shots, with one of those on the power play. Head coach Don Lucia has found his top six defensemen as Ben Marshall-Seth Helgeson, Nate Schmidt-Brady Skjei, and Mark Alt-Mike Reilly were his pairings in both games. Lucia had toyed with the idea of putting Marshall up on the second line to replace Warning a couple of weeks ago, but looks more comfortable now moving a forward up to that spot instead as third liner Nate Condon played second line wing both nights with usual fourth line center Tom Serratore playing wing on the third. The fourth line was pretty jumbled all weekend, as Jared Larson made his debut playing left wing in both games, as did usual defenseman Jake Parenteau who was on the wing Friday and played center (?) on Saturday. Freshman AJ MIchaelson centered Friday night with D-man Justin Holl playing wing on Saturday.
Expect the fourth line to be constantly shifting all season as Lucia tries to find ice time for everybody, and the third line should go back to Condon-Boyd-Ambroz once Warning gets back (hopefully for this weekend). Ambroz had another goal this weekend, and thus far is developing into the scoring power forward Minnesota hoped they were getting when they recruited him. What's been interesting is that the team's scoring struggles five-on-five have come since Lucia put last year's first line back together of Kyle Rau-Nick Bjugstad-Zach Budish. That group has been awesome on the power play, but in four games together that threesome is still looking for its first even-strength goal. I know four games is a small sample size, but this isn't the NHL or juniors where teams are playing 80+ games a year. In college hockey you only play twice a week so four games ends up being half a month on your schedule. Makes me wonder if once Warning is healthy Lucia won't move Budish back down to the second line and Christian Isackson back up to the first as both lines had great success (said in my best Borat voice) with those combinations at the beginning of the year?
Oh yeah, and the goaltending situation: a major question mark to start the year, freshman Adam Wilcox has settled in just fine, thank you. He notched his second shutout of the season already, and when you allow just two goals all weekend, goaltending is not your issue. Interesting to see how much Wilcox plays down the stretch, though. I doubt he plays every game like Kent Patterson did the past two years, and you don't want wear the kid out, but at the same time he played a ton in juniors (especially last year) so it's not like he isn't used to a heavy workload. As it stands, he's your clear #1 goalie and I feel good about that.
So now the tough sledding begins. Three of their next four weekends prior to the Christmas break are conference games, and they'll all be tough: home to Wisconsin this weekend (I know Sconnie's struggling right now but they always play Minnesota tough. Rivalry and all), at Vermont for a non-con series next weekend, then home UNO and at CC. There does not look to be a dominant team in the conference or country right now, and Minnesota is just three points behind Denver for first place in the conference. It doesn't matter who's playing their best hockey in November but in February in March, but at the same time, you don't want to get too far behind too early, otherwise your margin for error becomes slimmer and slimmer. The Gophers aren't playing their best hockey right now nor are they playing their worst, but with the schedule difficulty ramping up Minnesota will need to step up their game to keep pace in the conference and finish strong these next four weeks before the Christmas break so they'll be in good shape for the second half.