It seems like forever since the Minnesota Pep Band has had the chance to triumphantly play the Battle Hymn of the Republic on a Saturday night. I was starting to wonder if they would even remember the notes. In fact, the Golden Gophers hadn't completed a weekend sweep of an opponent since the second weekend of November.
I don't have the stomach to go through the low-lights of that stretch, so I'll spare you the gory details. What's important today is that this team appears to be getting on track, and they began turning things around without a moment to lose. Somehow, if the season ended today, the Gophers would likely make the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. It's kind of amazing what an eight day stretch can do to a team's fortunes.
So what's the difference between the last four games and the preceding two months? I honestly can't tell you.
I mean, the difference is obvious: in the last four games, the offense put up an aggregate of 21 goals (5.25 per game), and the defensive unit allowed only 13 (3.25). Being +2 in goals per game is a good way to win a lot of games. While the defense played horribly in Wisconsin, they played very well against Ohio State.
The biggest difference I saw on offense was this: they've finally started attacking the net. Rather than pulling up after crossing the blue line, Sam Warning dropped a gear and attempted to beat a defender to the near post. Hudson Fasching went went all Manpuck behind the net, using his size (finally) and quickness (where did it come from?) to score his best goal of the year (a wraparound goal that came straight out of NHL '94 on the SNES).
What I don't know is this: why did it happen now when these types of performances were seemingly impossible over the dark stretch?
It's inexplicable. We knew that this team was capable of playing games like they played against the Buckeyes. Hell, we all even thought they should play pretty much every game like that, but they didn't. Maybe it finally just... clicked.
Suddenly, after two weekends of playing decent hockey, the Gophers are sitting at essentially the 14th spot in the pairwise rankings, 15th in KRACH, and staring down the barrel of their last known weekend with an opponent that's ahead of them in the rankings.
We know Michigan can put the puck in the net. They're averaging over four goals per game. We also know that sometimes they don't give two shakes about playing any defense. In the last series against Minnesota, the Wolverines allowed eight goals to the Gophers, but managed the sweep because they scored like a million goals on odd-man rushes.
In that series, the Gophers got sucked into a track meet, especially in the second game. But if you remember the very first period of the weekend, the Gophers proved they can play with (and probably beat) the Wolverines. What sunk the effort was a complete lack of discipline in the offensive zone which was the result of playing from behind. Couple that lack of discipline with atrocious defense against the rush, and you get a big steaming pile of loss.
It will be interesting to see how much of an advantage home ice can be between these two teams. I obviously want Gophers sweep, so I'm hoping home ice is a huge advantage.
It's a simple game: play disciplined defense and exit your defensive zone quickly. Be aggressive in the offensive zone and create havoc by taking the puck to the net. Play Minnesota hockey.