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Minnesota Gopher Hockey vs Denver Pioneers Preview

The long-time WCHA foes meet for the final time in the regular season as 2nd place Minnesota hosts sixth place Denver.

Gopher Athletics

Just two weekends and four games left in the WCHA regular season (well unless you're UMD and UAA in which case you have one and two, respectively) and Minnesota and Denver have plenty to play for. Before we preview the weekend, here's the 4-1-1 on DU...

All-time Record vs The U: 72-93-12

2012-13 record: 16-10-5

WCHA: 11-8-5, Tied for 6th place with Wisconsin with 27 points

Quality Wins: North Dakota, St Cloud, swept Minnesota St @ Mankato, BU, UNO

Bad Loss/Tie: Lost AND tied BSU up @ Bemidji. No really, that happened.

Remaining Schedule: @ Minnesota, home UAA 3/8 and 3/10

Did You Know? Minnesota and Denver are the only two WCHA schools that have won back-to-back National Titles (Michigan and BU are the only others to do it, and the Wolverines are the only school to ever win three in a row), and would you believe Denver has done that 3 times? DU's 7 natty titles (2nd all time) are largely thanks to going back-to-back in 1960-61, 68'69, and most recently right after Minnesota did it in 2004-05.

Strange Happenings in Denver: So DU has themselves an old-fashioned mascot controversy. Or maybe a political-correctness mascot controversy (I don't THINK this has anything to with the legalization of pot, but well, it's definitely a weird one). Their school's nickname is the Pioneers, and their official mascot used Pioneer Pete, then was change to Boone in 1968, a pioneer-looking fellow who was created by an artist at Disney. Things were fine until the 1990's when some people complained that Boone's Pioneer image represented some of the worst parts of western expansion as these "pioneers" killed many Native Americans.

So when DU's sports moved to D1 in 1998, they got rid of Boone and changed the mascot (again, not the nickname, just the mascot) to a red-tailed hawk named Ruckus because...well nobody's really quite sure. By 2006 a "movement" started to bring back Boone, and in 2008 it happened in an "unofficial" capacity, but was seen at all the school's games and events. Since then, the anti-Boone folks are back at it, and have apparently won, as Boone is to phased out or "marginalized." Now I'm not saying the anti-Boone folks are right or wrong, but what's so strange to me is that they seem to only want to get rid of Boone because they feel he's offensive, yet they don't seem to care about the DU nickname Pioneers, which is what Boone represents? If they deem the mascot offensive, how is the nickname not deemed offensive too? Somebody please explain that one to me. If you want a lot more information on the subject, check out Mile High Mids and Let's Go DU.

Regardless of their mascot, DU has been one of the most succesfull schools in the WCHA and college hockey. This year has been a bit of a rebuilding season for them after losing some high-end talent to the NHL like Drew Shore and some dude named Jason Zucker at the end of last year (Minnesota Wild fans may be familiar), but have a good shot at finishing at least sixth and hosting a first round WCHA playoff series. The Pioneers enter the weekend tied with Wisconsin and they look to have a sizeable schedule advantage over Bucky as the BADgers close @ UNO then home St Cloud while DU gets the Gophers this weekend, but finish up at home with UAA. While Bucky pulling some upsets isn't out of the question, even if Denver gets swept only gains a point or two this weekend (I forgot Minnesota doesn't sweep conference opponents) they still have an excellent change to sweep UAA at home next weekend. Wisconsin? Not so much. Considering they're only 2 points back of Mankato for 5th and just 3 behind North Dakota and UNO for third Denver has a LOT to play for against the Gophers this weekend. Oh and they're four back of Minnesota heading into the series, so if DU were to pull off the sweep...ok, let's not go there, but we'll just say again DU has a LOT to play for this weekend.

And don't let their sixth place standing or pedestrian WCHA stats fool you- this is a good and dangerous team. For the umpteenth time this season, Minnesota looks much better on paper than their opponent, as during conference play DU is just 7th in goals scored (3.17), 9th in goals against (3.08), 7th on the power play (19.6%), and sixth on the PK (81.6%). The Gophers are top 4 in all of those same categories, but after watching them play this season and seeing this scenario play out time and again, we're not going to say Minnesota has a big advantage in all facets and that will make a big difference, because we know better. This Pioneers squad is also sneaky good, as they'd be in the NCAA tourney as an at large if it started today (they're tied for 12th in the Pairwise currently), and looking at their schedule, it's a pretty solid resume. That bad weekend in Bemidji aside (and as a Gopher fan I'm not saying a word of mock or scorn considering The U has to make that same trip next weekend and it makes me nervous as hell), they have some quality wins to their credit, most notably last weekend's 5-4 win and split with North Dakota. If it weren't for one-point weekends with BSU and Wisconsin and had even just split those games, they're tied with Mankato and nipping at the heels of the third place teams.

I'll say it again, this is a good and dangerous DU team, and the Gophers will once again need to be at their best to get a split or better and try to hang onto 2nd in the conference. The Pioneers have six players with at least 20 points on the season and three of them- yes three!- are defensemen. Edmonton Oilers draft pick Joey LaLeggia's 25 points makes him the second highest scoring d-man in the WCHA behind Minnesota's Nate Schmidt, and fellow blue-liners David Makowski and Nolan Zajac aren't far behind with 23 and 22 points respectively. Their top two scorers are junior F Nick Shore (younger brother of Drew and an LA Kings draftee) leads them in scoring with 28 points (12 G-16 A) and senior F Chris Knowlton (13-13-26).

It took DU awhile to find their starting goaltender, which is a surprise considering they had junior Sam Brittain returning, who missed the first 25 games of the 2011-12 season with a knee injury but was great upon his return, and had a monster rookie year the season before. Yet for some reason Brittain struggled to maintain his form as a top-flight WCHA goaltender this year, and he's been phased out by sophomore Juho Olkinuora, who has started 12 of DU's past 13 games and is 10-4-5 on the season. The big Finn has a worst GAA in conference play than Gopher goalie Adam Wilcox (2.70 compared to 2.24) and actually has a better save % (.918 to .909),but per Chris' Q&A with Scott McLaughlin of College Hockey News, Olkinuora has struggled in their past three, so we'll see who's in net for DU this weekend.

The Gophers are coming off a tie with Duluth and three point weekend, and another three-pointer would be big as they try to hold off North Dakota and UNO for second place. Still in firm grasp of a #1 NCAA tourney seed, Minnesota needs to finish strong and make a decent Final Five run to hang onto it, and picking up more than a split against DU would be big. Getting top-liners Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau back on track would help as Bjugstad hasn't scored more than two points in a game since the North Dakota series in mid January, and Rau has struggled lately with just one goal in his past 10 and was kept off the score sheet in six of those games. Lucia continues to switch up the other winger on that line trying to find the right chemistry as just about everybody now has had a shot playing with Rau and Bjuggy. It was Zach Budish's turn last weekend, and he picked up two assists in the win Friday but was shut out Saturday. I like what he gives to the second line with Erik Haula and Sam Warning, but Haula could be more than a point-a-game player with a couple of pee wee players on his wings, let alone elite college hockey wings like Budish and Sam Warning, so it seems Lucia is more worried about getting that top line going and letting Haula and Warning do their thing. Nate Condonhas also been very good this season bouncing between the top lines, and is enjoying a break-out season as the team's fourth leading scorer with 29 points. We'll see if it's him or Budish or someone else up with the top line Friday night.

Denver usually likes to get after and play up-tempo hockey, and while they thankfully don't have the offensive arsenal they usually do, they'll still be plenty dangerous and should hopefully want to play some firewagon hockey with the Gophers. It at least won't be anything like playing Wisconsin (did we mention they lost to Penn State earlier this week? We did? Just checking). Two of the WCHA's and college hockey's best squaring off for the last time in the forseaable ever in the regular season (with all of Minnesota's non-conference scheduling commitment there won't be any room for DU anytime soon) should be a lot of fun this weekend, although I retain the right to only call this series "fun" if Minnesota gets more than a split. Anything less would kill their slim hopes at still winning the MacNaughton Cup, and would likely require a sweep of Bemidji next weekend considering UND hosts BSU this weekend and should sweep the Beavers.

Both games this weekend at Mariucci are on TV, with Friday night at 7pm on BTN and Saturday night at the same time over on FSN.