The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team got off to a bit of a slow start last weekend against Mercyhurst to open the season. While the Gophers would battle back and sweep the series, they now will face a much tougher opponent where the sloppy mistakes wont be so easy to overcome. In the first of back-to-back intrastate NCHC/Big Ten rivalry weekends the #4 ranked Gophers will host #2 St. Cloud State on Friday before the teams head up I-94 to the Granite City for the rematch on Saturday. This will be the first true test of just how good Minnesota can be this season.
The Gophers didn’t have any problems scoring goals last weekend against the Lakers earning the fans Culvers both nights with a 7-4 win on Friday and a 5-3 win on Saturday. Blake MccLaughlin earned the Big Ten’s #3 Star of the Week for his five point performance in the series scoring one goal and adding four assists. Two other Gophers each had four points on the weekend with Bryce Brodzinski leading the teams with three goals and Ben Meyers picking up a goal and three apples.
The offense was not the problem. The defense, well that was a bit of a different story. Minnesota returned four defensemen than earned All-Big Ten preseason honors and frankly they all struggled at times last weekend. Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson’s struggles were the most evident with LaCombe nearly being solely responsible for Mercyhurst’s first goal on Saturday night after a horrible defensive zone turnover and an even more stupid penalty taken out of frustration. Mercyhurst had no trouble keeping zone possession at times, and Jack LaFontaine was hung out to try multiple times. He also appeared to struggle seeing the puck at times and had one of his worst weekends as a Gopher. After being at the top of the nation on both save percentage and goals against average last year he brings in a 3.52 GAA and a lowly .841 save percentage after the first two games. Plenty of room for improvement.
The Huskies come into the weekend with a 3-1 record. They swept St. Thomas in their first two games as a Division I program to open the season and then held their own in a series at #1 Minnesota State last weekend dropping Friday’s game in a tight 1-0 shutout loss to Dryden McKay and the Mavericks before winning the Saturday game 3-1. St. Cloud State’s stats are inflated due to the 12 goals they scored in the season opener against the Tommies, but the Huskies do have plenty of offensive power. Kevin Fitzgerald leads the way for SCSU with 5 points on the season. Seven different Huskies each have two goals on the season—so just like Minnesota they can spread their scoring across the entire roster. St. Cloud has been especially potent this season on the power play converting 9 of 19 attempts so far this season. Both Fitzgerald and Zach Okabe each have a pair of power play goals.
The Huskies will bring in a good veteran goalie as well. David Hrenak stopped 50 of the 52 shots he faced against the #1 team in the nation last weekend and won his school record 69th career game. In his fourth season as the Huskies starter he has a career 2.37 goals against average and a .910 save percentage.
This weekend will be just the second and third times the two teams have played since Bob Motzko left St. Cloud for the Gophers after the 2018 season. Minnesota won the only game between the current coaches 4-1 in the Championship Game of the 2019 Mariucci Classic. Lafontaine made 23 saves in the win while Hrenak came into the game in relief of Jaxon Castor in the second period and allowed just one goal on 18 shots. Sammy Walker and Brodzinski scored two of the goals for Minnesota while senior Micah Miller scored the lone goal for the Huskies.
Saturday’s game could be quite emotional for Motzko as Minnesota’s first road game of the year will be his first road game back in St. Cloud where he spent 13 seasons as the coach of the Huskies. It also will be the first road game and the first return to where his son Mack spent much of his time growing up since his death earlier this year. You know Minnesota would love to get a big road win for Bob in that one.
This weekend will be a real task to see where the Gophers are at this point of the season. If for no other reason then putting themselves in decent shape in the pairwise as the season advances, the Gophers would love at minimum a split this weekend and next weekend against Minnesota-Duluth. A pair of NCHC sweeps would seriously harm the Gophers potential NCAA seeding come March. Minnesota can definately put the puck in the net, but this weekend will be a good test to see if the defensive lapses that almost hurt them last weekend can be avoided this weekend as the Huskies will not hesitate one bit to take advantage of them. If the Gophers can clean things up, they can prove they belong in the conversation as one of the best teams both in Minnesota and in the nation. Slip up, and their job gets that much harder.
HOW TO WATCH:
#2 St. Cloud State Huskies at #4 Minnesota Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN
When: 7PM Friday
TV: Bally Sports North (Fri)
Stream: Bally Sports App, BTN+ ($$)
Radio: 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ IHeartRadio App
#4 Minnesota Gophers at #2 St. Cloud State Huskies
Where: Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, MN
When: 5PM Saturday
Stream: NCHC.TV ($$)
Radio: 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ IHeartRadio App