I doubt anyone has forgotten last year's NCAA West Regional Final, in which the Golden Gophers drubbed the Huskies 4-0 en route to an appearance in the National Championship game. I'm sure the St. Cloud State players haven't forgotten.
The Huskies likely feel they have just as much to prove this year as the Gophers. However, unlike the Gophers, the Huskies are starting the year with an unproven goaltender at one end of the ice and missing a Hobey Baker finalist on the other. The graduation of Nick Dowd took forty points out of the roster, but was unavoidable. More concerning for the current roster is the the departure of goaltender Ryan Faragher.
Faragher, was not a lights-out goaltender last year. He allowed 2.75 goals against on average and had a .905 save percentage. There were grumblings last season that Faragher needed to find consistency (read "consistency" as "improve") if the program was going to take a step forward. Well, that .905 save percentage carried the team to the NCAA tournament, and Faragher posted 38 saves in the 4-3 triple-overtime victory over Notre Dame. After falling to Minnesota, he signed a 1-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks.
His backup, Charlie Lindgren, posted an identical save percentage of .905 in ten appearances. He's seen that stat dip beneath the all-important .900 mark in four starts this season, but the strength of the opponents in those four games should probably make that stat less scary for St. Cloud fans.
The Huskies are led offensively by Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila. Brodzinski picked up this season right where he left off last season. He already has four points, including three goals. Kossila has probably not had the start he was hoping for, appearing just once on the score sheet with an assist, but you can't write him off as a threat on offense. He had forty points last season.
In one off-season, St. Cloud has transformed from a plucky young team into a veteran squad with the offensive talent to contend for a NCHC championship and make a run in the NCAA tournament. What remains to be seen is if they have the defensive ability and discipline to win consistently. They have enough talent on offense to threaten in any game. Against Colgate and Union, two of the best teams in the land in this young season, the Huskies have two wins and two losses; a respectable record through four.
For the Gophers, this represents the first real test of the season. Duluth is pretty good, RPI doesn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary, and the Gophers were clearly the better team on the ice last weekend against Bemidji. The Huskies enter the weekend ranked seventh in the USCHO.com poll, so expectations are high for their squad and I'd bet we see a chip-on-the-shoulder effort out of the Huskies in St. Cloud tonight. this is an important series for Pairwise purposes, quality opponents and winning on the road are important, remember. Still, top to bottom, I'd take the Gophers' roster over the Huskies every time, so the keys to Minnesota victory are simple this weekend.
Gopher Hockey Must Reads
Gopher Hockey Must Reads
First, weather the storm. I would expect 110% effort from St. Cloud in the first period of this series. They have something to prove, and they're probably itching to prove it. Make it out of that period with an even score or a Gopher lead, and I'll feel pretty good.
Second, stay disciplined. You do not want Brodzinski and Kossila on the power play too often, so the Gophers can't get caught up in the raucous atmosphere and take stupid penalties. Which brings me to my next point: stay hot on special teams. The Gophers lead the country in Power Play percentage (Brown's 3 for 3 mark doesn't count) at 35.39%. I don't think we can fairly expect that pace to continue, but if they maintain above 20%, or even better 25%, they'll be in good shape. The PK is also clipping along at better than 89%.
Last point of emphasis: challenge this goaltender. In his short-so-far career, Lindgren has not posted a great save percentage. The Gophers have a tendency to be cute with passing. I don't want to see anyone turn up a shot to go for pass when they have a shooting lane. Their is enough shooting talent on this team that the extra pass is likely to be hurt more than it helps. If the Gophers put thirty shots on goal each night, they'll have a good shot a winning each night.
Should be a fun weekend of Gopher hockey. Go Gophers!