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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers NCAA Tournament Begins against Omaha

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Can the Gophers keep the Big Ten’s hopes alive?

Mike Miller

When the Minnesota Golden Gophers take the ice in the last game of the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night, they will already know two of the four teams in the NCAA Frozen Four. They will also know that they will be the last Big Ten team standing as of the four teams to make the tournament, only two will actually see the ice, and the third one probably wishes they hadn’t. The pressure will be on a team that has not won a NCAA Tournament Regional game outside of the State of Minnesota since 2007. They will know whether they need to be able to keep the dream of an All-Minnesota Frozen Four alive. They will know that one #1 seed has already lost in the opening round, and they team defeated them twice in the regular season. They know the pressure is on them, and they need to live up to the expectations to keep the hope of a return trip to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014.

The #1 seeded Gophers will play the #4 seed Omaha from the NCHC Saturday night in a game of two teams that play relatively different styles, Minnesota is much more of a puck flow team, looking to make the nice pass to spring someone open for a good shot or an odd-man rush up ice. Omaha is a much more physical team who wants to gain zone possession, put pucks on net and then punish the other team to get to that puck in front of the opposing team’s goalie. It’s a style the Gophers have not seen in the Big Ten this season, but they will need to be able to counter it if they want to keep their season alive.

The Gophers are making their NCAA leading 38th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but their first in four seasons. The Gophers lost in overtime to Notre Dame in the 2017 NCAA Northeast Regional First Round 3-2. No one on the current Minnesota roster played in that game, so this is a new experience for everyone. Omaha is making their fourth ever trip to the NCAA Tournament and their first since 2015 when they advanced to the Frozen Four as the #2 seed in their region. The Gophers have a 4-3 all-time record against the Mavericks which includes six games back when the teams were WCHA opponents from 2010-13. This will be the first time the two teams have ever met in postseason play.

Omaha went 14-10-1 this season and finished in fourth place in the NCHC regular season. They lost in the opening round of the NCHC Playoffs to Denver 5-4. They come in on a bit of a slide losing four of their last five games. But the Mavericks did have some signature wins on the season. Omaha went 2-4 against North Dakota this season, 0-1-1 against UMD, and 1-1 against St. Cloud State. Chase Primeau leads Omaha with 23 points on the season. Taylor Ward has 11 goals to lead the Mavericks. In net, Isiah Saville has been the starter and he enters the NCAA Tournament with a 12-10-1 record, a .912 save percentage, and a 2.86 goals against average. As a team Omaha averages 3.32 goals per game, good enough for 15th in the nation. They allow 2.96 goals per game and rank 26th in the nation. They boast a 20.41% success rate on the power play to rank 20th in the country, and an 85.15 % kill rate on the penalty kill to rank 9th in the nation.

For Minnesota this game will be won or lost on whether they can score goals. Minnesota erupted after two slower games to score six goals in a Big Ten Tournament win over Wisconsin. But, they struggled at times, especially in their BTT opener against Michigan State. The Gophers have had a similar layoff to before the game against the Spartans—can they shake off that rust and figure out a way to not come out flat? Minnesota will need to get play from all three scoring lines and overwhelm Omaha with their depth. if the first line of Sammy Walker-Blake McLaughlin-and a third forward can get going, that opens chances for the Sampo Ranta-Brannon-McManus line. Ranta has been the hot had for the Gophers this season ranking second in the nation in goals with 18. He has scored at least one goal in all-but two weekends this season, the last being the disaster weekend at home against Wisconsin in February. Ranta is the sniper, but when the Gophers really get rolling it takes an effort from that top line. It’s no coincidence that when the Gophers blew open the game against Wisconsin it was Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin doing the damage. McLaughlin played possibly his best game as a Gopher recording four points in the game against the Badgers. Can he keep that touch into the tournament? Minnesota hopes so.

Possibly the most important group of Gopher skaters on Saturday will be their defensemen. With the way Omaha likes to play it will be critical for the Gophers blueliners to not get pushed around and get the Mavericks get good looks at rebounds in front of Jack Lafontaine. This will be the most physical opponent Minnesota has seen so it will be critical for the Ryan Johnson, Jackson LaCombe, Brock Faber and Mike Koster group to show why they have been some of the best defensmen in the nation this season.

But of course the buck stops with the guy in net. Jack Lafonatine has been everything to this Gopher team this season. The Hobey Baker Finalist and now Top 3 Finalist for the Mike Richter Award given out to the nation’s top goalie will need to be his typical self this weekend and avoid all the junk in front. Omaha will pressure him..they will give him some extra wacks after the whistle. do anything to try his composure. But LaFontaine shouldn’t crack. The nation’s leader in wins with 21 is third among all goalies in goals-against average with 1.74 and second in save percentage with .936. He should be on the top of his game—hopefully the rest of the team can be on theirs.

Minnesota had the advantage over Omaha when it comes to both scoring offense and defense. The Gophers are 4th in the nation averaging 3.79 goals per game. They are 7th in the nation allowing just 2.0 goals per game. They just need to play up to their potential and play smart. Getting into a special teams battle could be Minnesota’s downfall. The Gophers have been rough on the power play as of late scoring just three goals with the man advantage in their last 12 games. They now rank 30th in the country with an 18.9% success rate. The penalty kill has been much better as they rank 13th with an 84.7% kill rate. Yet, Omaha is better over the course of the season at both. Minnesota should dominate 5x5., just make sure you can keep it that way and don’t give them extra chances.

If Minnesota plays as they should, they should advance to the region final Sunday night for the first time since 2014. There they would see either #2 seed Minnesota State or #3 seed Quinnipiac. It’s battle of great goalies as both teams have a Hobey Baker finalist in their net. Those two teams will face off at 4PM on ESPN3.

Minnesota would like to advance to get the Big Ten a bit of dignity back as well. Four teams made the final field of 16 teams but two, Notre Dame on Thursday and Michigan on Friday had to pull out of the tournament due to COVID issues with both teams. The third Big Ten team Wisconsin lost to #4 seed Bemidji State 6-3 on Friday afternoon. The Gophers stand alone.

Minnesota can win this game. They just need to play smart and try and make the Mavericks need to play the Gophers style of game, not the other way around. Minnesota can no come out flat like they did in the Big Ten Tournament after a layoff. They just come out strong, take control and make sure that they don’t have any need for another third period flurry. They do that, and they can keep their season alive at least one more night.

HOW TO WATCH—NCAA WEST REGIONAL

#4 Omaha Mavericks vs #1 Minnesota Golden Gophers

Where: Budweiser Events Center, Loveland, Colorado

When: 9PM Saturday

TV: ESPNU

Stream: WatchESPN

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