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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers Close Out 2020 With a Series at Michigan

Minnesota will look to remain undefeated into the new year

Jack LaFontaine has been perfect in net for the Gophers this season
Brad Rempel—Gophersports.com

The #4 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers will have their toughest task of the young season this week when they play the #5 Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. The series will be the final one of 2020 for Minnesota, and is currently the last scheduled series for the Gophers as they await the second portion of the Big Ten schedule to be released. What previously looked like it could be an epic clash of the titans will be dampened a bit as eight players fro both teams will miss the series as they are with the US World Juniors Team camp preparing to leave for the tournament in Edmonton this weekend. Yet, it will be a good test to see just how this Minnesota team can fight some adversity.

The Gophers opened the road portion of their season this past week gaining a sweep of Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. Minnesota used the power play to cruise to a 3-1 win on Thursday with Scott Reedy recording a goal and an assist. Friday’s game was a bit closer, but Minnesota broke a 2-2 tie with a Reedy power play goal—his team leading fifth of the season in the second period and added a Sampo Ranta empty net goal to clinch the win.

Reedy recorded four points in the series sweep and earned the Big Ten’s #1 Star of the Week for his efforts. He now leads the Gophers in goals with five and is first in the Big Ten with seven points on the season. His three game-winning goals leads the nation.

Minnesota has also gotten stellar play in goal from Jack LaFontaine. The senior is 6-0 on the season and earned the Big Ten’s #3 Star of the Week last week allowing just 3 goals in the sweep over the Spartans. He leads the nation in wins with six, goals against average at 1.17 and save percentage at .956. Minnesota’s 6-0 start is the first time they have reached that mark since the 2001-02 season where they won the first of back-to-back NCAA Championships.

If Minnesota is to keep their hot streak to the season going, they will need to do it missing their three best defensemen. Sophomores Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson and freshman Brock Faber all are with the US Junior National Team as they quarantine before hopefully leaving for Canada and the World Juniors Tournament. All three have played all six games this season for the Gophers and suddenly leave a very broad hole in the Gophers defense that has been outstanding in 2020. Minnesota still has four defensemen who have decent game experience this weekend. Junior Ben Brinkman will return to the lineup after missing the Spartans series with a minor leg injury. He will be joined by Michigan native sophomore Matt Staudacher and freshman Mike Koster who have both played in every game this season. The fourth defenseman will be junior Robbie Stucker who played in both games against Michigan State after missing the first four games of the season. Stucker is more of an offensive defenseman who has significant time on the Minnesota power play. The other two defense spots will be up for grabs between a trio of untested options. Freshman carl Fish dressed as the extra skater in both games against Michigan State but saw limited ice time. The other two options—senior Sam Rossini and junior Matt Denman have yet to dress in a single game this season for Minnesota, but at least one will end up on the third d-pairing against the Wolverines. Of the two Rossini has a bit more experience playing in a pair of games last season and several more his sophomore year while Denman did not dress at all a year ago.

Minnesota’s forward depth is still strong, but the Gophers will still be missing Brannon McManus who was injured in the finale of the Ohio State series. His injury is still week to week, but he is expected to return when Minnesota restarts it’s season for the second half. The Gophers still have plenty of firepower at the top of their lineup from Reedy, Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin, and even from the fourth line where Jack Perbix, Cullen Monson and Jaxon Nelson combined to score a gorgeous goal in the second game against Michigan State. Minnesota should have the advantage in the forward game as the Wolverines will be missing four of their top forwards this week as well.

Michigan enters the series with the Gophers as the #5 ranked team in the nation, but they are just 1-3 in their last four games after being swept at home by Notre Dame and splitting a pair of games against Penn State. Coming into the season the Wolverines strength was expected to be their young forward and their goaltender, and one of the two has lived up to expectations. Michigan’s freshman class of Matty Beniers, Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson has lived up to expectations. Bordeleau has ten points on the season for the Wolverines including three goals. Brisson has seven points and a pair of goals and Beniers six points and three goals. They have terrorized goaltenders so far this season, but Minnesota will get a break as all three are with the US Junior National team and will miss the series. Also in camp with the US team and not playing for the Wolverines this week will be sophomore forward Johnny Beecher and sophomore defenseman Cam York.

The Wolverines do still have firepower left on their roster though through some upperclassmen and additional freshman. Micheal Pastujov leads the Wolverines with four goals on the season while Jimmy Lambert should be another familiar name for Gophers fans from the recent few years. The Wolverines also have several high profile freshmen who are not in World Junior camps who can create havoc. Two Canadians, forward Kent Johnson who is second on the team in scoring and defenseman Own Power are the most notable. Power was to play on the Canadian World Junior team and is expected to be a top 5 pick in next Summer’s NHL draft. But, he stayed with the Wolverines rather than miss a large chunk of the season and is an impressive player to watch.

In net the Wolverines has the preseason pick for Big Ten goalie of the year in Strauss Mann. While his stats have not been as gaudy as LaFontaine’s. they are yet again impressive. Mann brings just a 5-3 record into the series with Minnesota but has a 1.99 goals against average and a save percentage of .923. His most recent start was puzzling as he allowed six goals in just over a period and a half before being replaced in a 9-6 loss at Penn State. But he has shown he can easily shut down a team when needed as he allowed just seven goals in four games against the Gophers last season.

This series while a marquis #4 vs #5 in the nation matchup really does not matter much in the long run due to both teams missing such critical parts to their team. It will be interesting to see which roster can adapt to it’s missing players more easily as they will probably have the advantage in the series. While it would be great for the Goophers to continue to find a way to keep their undefeated streak alive into 2021, missing three huge cogs on the blue line will not make things easier. Michigan still has plenty of players who can put the puck in the net, and the back of the Gopher blue line will be tested heavily. The pressure will be on LaFontaine to continue his outstanding play on the season. Meanwhile Minnesota will need to take advantage of their exceptional forward depth to create mismatches with their third and fourth lines. Both are very capable of putting the puck in the net and should be able to have a skill advantage over the matching lines of the Wolverines. If they can do that and each produce a goal or two, this series could go very will for the Gophers. In any case it should be fun to watch and hopefully keep us longing for more as we won’t see Minnesota play again for several weeks.

HOW TO WATCH:

#4 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ #5 Michigan Wolverines

Where: Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI

When: 7 PM Tuesday, 5:30 PM Wednesday

TV: Big Ten Network

Stream: Fox Sports App

Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio App