Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gopher Puck Talk

By Jason Rossow of GopherTailgate.com

The Gopher Men’s Hockey team finds themselves in a position that is expected, but haven’t seen in five years…..leading the WCHA in February.  The Gophers have four series left and take a three point lead into the home stretch. 

Don Lucia will coach his 1,000th game on Saturday night in Denver, and is still building his resume’ but will likely go down as a one of the ten greatest NCAA Hockey coaches all-time.  In my opinion, the biggest difference between this year’s Gopher squad and the past three years which underperformed greatly is the addition of former Gopher, and former Gopher coach Mike Guentzel. Guentzel is the highest paid assistant coach in college hockey, and is the overwhelming favorite to replace Lucia when his time is done in Minnesota.  Lucia's teams have floundered without Guentzel and flourished with him.  The Gophers defense seemed like an area of concern starting the season, but has proved to be one of the best units in America this winter, with guidance of Guentzel.

The Gophers have a chance to have TWO finalist candidates for the Hobey Baker Award this spring (that is the Heisman of college hockey for Ryan Boser’s of the world). 

Nick Bjugstad is having a monster sophomore season and his 33 goals rank him 2nd in the nation despite missing two games for World Juniors over the holiday.

Kent Patterson has logged every minute of every game in net, and has been fantastic.  He has an amazing 1.9 Goals Against average in conference play.  The big concern Gopher fans have is how will Patterson hold up down the stretch. Will he be strong in playoff time or will he wear down?

Kyle Rau is the favorite to win WCHA Freshman of the Year, with 40pts and 27 goals thus far.

Defenseman Nate Schmidt is quietly having a big point year for a blue-liner.  His 25 assists are the 2nd most for any defenseman in the league.

The Gophers are 15-5 in the WCHA, three full points clear of defending national champ Minnesota-Duluth, and in great position to win their first McNaughton Cup since 2007.  They are 5-5 on Friday nights and 10-0 on Saturday in conference play. However, they’ve had a bad non-conference record this season at just 4-4-1.  At 19-9-1 overall, the Gophers are 2nd in the nation with 3.72 Goals per game, and 2nd with just 2.03 goals against. They rank 1st and 2nd in the major college hockey polls.  Oddly enough, there is a legitimate chance they won’t qualify for the NCAA tournament if they falter down the stretch.  College hockey uses something called the Pairwise rating to determine at-large teams for the tournament which is a formula that makes the Quarterback rating look like elementary math.  In the Pairwise, the Gophers are ranked just T-7th, and will likely need to remain in the top 13 or so to secure a spot in the NCAA’s. 

The remaining schedule will be tough, with very difficult road series at Denver and Omaha.  The two home series include rival Wisconsin & inner-state foe Bemidji State.  The good news for playoffs is the Gophers won’t have to travel until the Frozen 4 if they make it that far.  They’ll get a home series in the first round of the WCHA tourney at Marriuci, and then travel down the road a couple of miles to the Xcel Center for the Final5 if they advance.  Then in the NCAA’s their first two games would also be in the Xcel center, meaning IF they were to reach the Frozen 4, they would play all their games in the Twin Cities from the end of February through the beginning of April.  The stars are in alignment for the Pride on Ice to hang a banner (regular season champs), or two(post season champs), or even three (ncaa champs) this year.  Of course in a one game, loser go home playoff, ANYTHING is possible good or bad.

Don Lucia’s teams hung 7 banners from 2002-2007 (2 national titles, 2 regular season titles and 3 postseason titles) but since 07 have not won any titles or advanced to the frozen 4.  They haven’t won an ncaa playoff game since 2007, and haven’t been to the frozen 4 since 2005.   The past four seasons have been as bad of a four year run as I can remember as a Gopher Hockey fan.  A great March/April run would make every Gopher puck fan forget the past four years very quickly!

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