The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team will step onto the ice in TD Garden in Boston for their first game at the NCAA Frozen Four since losing the NCAA Championship game to Union in 2014 Thursday night. Their opponents—the team that ended their season last year, Minnesota State Mavericks. It’s an all-Minnesota battle to get one team to the national championship game.
Minnesota earned their spot with Worcester Regional wins over defending NCAA Champion the UMass Minutemen and then the #1 seed in the region the Western Michigan Broncos. Now they come to Boston in a relatively unusual position, the lowest ranked team remaining at the Frozen Four and statistically the biggest underdog of the bunch. The Gophers are usually the one with the huge target on their backs, but this time they are the ones doing the targeting. But don’t think that Minnesota State still doesn’t think that the Gophers are the ones that need to be hunted down. After all while this is Minnesota’s 22nd Frozen Four appearance in school history, Minnesota State is making just their second. The Mavericks defeated the Gophers in Loveland 4-0 to make the Frozen Four last spring only to drop their semifinal game to another in-state rival St. Cloud State 5-4 on a late goal with less than a minute left in the game. You know they want redemption for that trip, while the Gophers want to get back to the spot they have occupied more often than almost any other school in the country—national finalist. Minnesota has reached 12 NCAA Championship games in the program’s history—with only a 5-7 record to show for it. In fact this Frozen Four has three of the four teams in the nation with the most NCAA Championship game appearances in history with Michigan and Minnesota’s 12 ranking second behind North Dakota’s 13, and Denver coming right behind with 11. Minnesota would love to try and jump up the ranks of the winners and try to catch up to the Wolverine’s nine titles and Denver’s 8.
For the Gophers to get past the Mavericks and have a chance to play for NCAA title #6, they will need to play one of their best games of the season. The Mavericks may be the team with the least history in the Frozen Four, but this season is all that really matters. They bring a tight checking team that will want to control gameplay for a full 60 minutes, one of the best goalies in NCAA history, and a team that may lack the firepower of some of the other teams in the field, or at least have less heralded firepower, but can still put the puck in the net.
The key to the Mavericks game starts and ends with goaltender Dryden McKay. McKay is the winningest goalie in NCAA history. His 117 wins and 34 shutouts are the most of any goalie to ever play college hockey. He has a career .932 save percentage and this season alone for the Mavericks has a 37-4-0 record with a .934 save percentage and a 1.28 goals against average. Is he helped by the fact that the Mavericks defense is the stingiest in the nation allowing just 19 shots on goal per game—you bet, but this defense is tough and Minnesota will need to execute their gameplay perfectly to get through it and get chances on goal. When they do, they will need to take advantage of them—this is not the game for 25 weak soft shots on goal. They will need to get dirty—tip pucks to try and get past McKay or fight for whatever rebounds there are in front of the net. There will be no easy goals for Minnesota Thursday night.
But as we said the Mavericks can also put the puck in the net. The Mavericks are the second highest scoring team in the nation averaging 4.1 goals per game. yes, this might be inflated some playing a much weaker CCHA schedule, but the Mavericks did go 10-2 in the non-conference schedule this season sweeping the UMass team Minnesota defeated in the regional, splitting with St. Cloud State, and defeating Notre Dame 1-0 in a tight Albany Regional Final to make it back to the Frozen Four. The Mavs did lose to Michigan by a 3-2 score back in October with McKay giving up three goals on just 19 shots on goal.
But when the Mavs are clicking offensively—watch out. Their top line is anchored by two of the top scorers in the nation. Nathan Smith ranks second in the country with 50 points and has 19 goals on the season. This despite missing three weeks joining the Gopher trio of Ben Meyers, Mathew Knies and Brock Faber in Beijing with the US Olympic Team. Smith’s center Julien Naprivnik is third in the country in scoring with 49 points on the season. Brendan Furry and Cade Borchard both have over 40 points giving the Mavs two lines worth of scoring that the Gophers will need to defend against.
Minnesota will look to counter the Mavericks scoring with some great play from their corps of defensemen. Brock Faber and Ryan Johnson have played nearly half the game the last two games for the Gophers and they will see plenty of time once again. Couple that with Jackson LaCombe and Minnesota has the horses necessary to shut down the MSU offense, but they will also need to generate offense as well. Minnesota looked the best against both UMass and Western Michigan when they did not try and play a transition game. They needed to get puck control in the offensive zone and set up their offense. The Mavericks will be very tough to do this against. Their neutral zone trap is set up to not allow teams to get the puck into the zone with possession but rather to dump and chase and most often lose the puck battles and possession. The Gophers will need to make smart breakout passes to try and break this trap—as they did in the third period and overtime against U Mass to gain zone entry and puck control—then good things can happen. But the Gophers can not get into a dump and chase game with Minnesota State—that will not work. Minnesota tried to do that last year and once the Mavericks got a pair of quick goals the Gophers got out of sorts and tried going for the home run passes...which were easily shut down. Play you game, be smart, take the opportunities you are given, and make good things happen. Don’t force, make mistakes and need to play from behind.
Minnesota will need to get some scoring efforts from all three top lines. The Meyers-Knies-Hugelin line has been doing all the heavy lifting thus far, but the Gophers will not be able to get through the next game or two without some type of contribution from the Sammy Walker-Blake McLaughlin-Bryce Brodzynski line. They need to show up. Add in the third line of Tristan Broz, Rhett Pitlick and Jaxon Nelson and any help they can get to take advantage of any mismatches will be key. The Mavericks as the “home” team will get the last change. They will be able to control the matchups of their personnel against the Gophers top lines. Minnesota will need to get some help from the bottom of the lineup where their depth should hopefully shine through.
Part of not playing from behind will be keeping the area in front of Justen Close clean. Close has played amazing for Minnesota down the stretch but still struggles with a lot of traffic in front of him as he is a smaller goalie. The Gopher defenders and forwards will need to do a good job of clearing out the area in front of Close and making sure all rebounds are taken care of. If the Mavericks are going to score a couple of early dirty goals it would be a long night for Minnesota.
The play on the ice will be what wins the game for Minnesota, but the historical omens run deep this weekend in Boston. The Gophers are back where they won their first ever NCAA Championship in 1973. Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the Minnesota overtime win over Maine at the X to win their first title in 23 seasons. Minnesota came out of the Worcester Regional—the one hosted by Holy Cross to advance to the Frozen Four. This year was the first regional the Gophers had won outside the State of Minnesota since—-2002. It may be just looking for good signs, but it just feels like something is aligning in the right way for Minnesota. Now they need to go play the underdog, pressure is off and go get what they deserve. The Mavericks have the better national ranking in every category. They are “supposed” to win. Time to prove the naysayers wrong.
Offense: 3.61 goals per game (4th in nation)
Defense: 2.26 goals per game (11th)
Power Play: 21.55 % (21st)
Penalty Kill: 84.85% (13th)
Minnesota State Mavericks:
Offense: 4.1 goals per game (2nd)
Defense: 1.29 goals per game (2nd)
Power play: 26.99% (3rd)
Penalty Kill 86.62% (10th)
HOW TO WATCH: NCAA FROZEN FOUR SEMIFINAL:
#2 Minnesota Gophers vs #1 Minnesota State Mavericks
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
When: 7:30 PM Thursday
TV: ESPN U
Radio: 100.3 FM/ 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio