Friday, October 16, 2009

Tough Opening Weekend Test for Gopher Six

The Gophers were 10-3-5 when they made the trek northward to take on the North Dakota Fighting Sioux on January 9-10, 2009. The Sioux were 11-10-1 going into that series and were coming off a three-game stretch where they lost to Michigan Tech (winners of six games all of last season) and two one-goal games at home against Bemidji State.

The Gophers got off to a strong start last season, but would have to make the trip to Grand Forks without their coach, Don Lucia, who was home ill for the weekend with an unknown disorder. The Gophers played like they were punched in the gut all weekend long, and the Sioux buzzed around for two games and thoroughly dominated Minnesota in the two-game sweep, out-scoring them 12-4. The weekend ignited a stark contrast in the teams' directions, as Minnesota would finish 5-7-2 and miss the NCAA Tournament, while UND would go 9-2-3 the rest of the way to capture the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season champions.

The Ralph Engelstad Arena is perhaps the toughest place to play in the WCHA, and the Gophers will have to kick off the 2009-10 season in Grand Forks this weekend. If there is one advantage to going to Grand Forks, the fact that the Gophers are going up there before the new year works in their favor. UND traditionally makes its annual run in the second half of the season and traditionally starts slow. However, this is a rivalry series in which both teams will be jacked.

The Gophers were idle last weekend after opening their schedule with a 6-1 exhibition win over British Columbia on October 4. The Sioux swept Merrimack at home last weekend. Both teams come into the series ranked and are expected to be among the WCHA's elite in 2009-10.

For North Dakota, a group of talented freshmen will once again supplement the strong returning core. Freshman forward Michael Cichy had a great weekend in his first collegiate action, scoring 1-2-3 and picking up WCHA rookie of the week honors. Fellow freshman Danny Kristo picked up two assists against Merrimack, and is a strong candidate to win rookie of the year honors. Returnees Chris VandeVelde, Brett Hextall, and Jason Gregoire will be strong up front, and captain Chay Genoway provides plenty of scoring punch from the blueline.

In goal, Brad Eidsness returns and figures to see the majority of action. He is solid, if not spectacular, and was so last weekend against Merrimack.

For the Gophers, fans will get their first opportunity to see touted newcomers D Nick Leddy, D Seth Helgeson, and F Zach Budish this weekend under somewhat hostile conditions. Sophomore Jordan Schroeder returns, and much will be expected of him in his second season. Coach Lucia will start the season with a top line of Schroeder, senior Jay Barriball, and junior Mike Hoeffel, which will be expected to produce a ton of offense. The Gophers are experienced with only two seniors lost from last year's squad and four freshmen to work into the lineup.
Another feature this year's Gopher squad will have over last year is size - especially on the blue line. The 6'5" Helgeson will join holdovers David Fischer (6'3") and Sam Lofquist (6'2") to create a sizable defensive corps. The big guys will nicely compliment smallish puck-movers like Cade Fairchild and Leddy. Budish is 6'3" up front and plays his size. How he comes back from a knee injury suffered his senior year of high school remains to be seen.

The key to this season is in goal, and Alex Kangas is due for a bounceback season. Kangas's numbers dropped significantly from his tremendous freshman-year marks, but he was solid down the stretch when the team most needed it. Sophomore Kent Patterson will likely get more starts this season, but look for Kangas to carry the load again.

It's a good time to be going up to Grand Forks. In addition to being notoriously slow-starters, UND is a young team working in a bunch of freshmen. They also do not have a marquee scoring threat for the first time in recent years (see T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Duncan of late) - at least not yet. The Sioux will be up for the Gophers this weekend, but look for the M&G to put on a much better show than last season.

Prediction: Split

PS - Check out my WCHA Examiner home page for season previews for both squads. Also, take a look on the blogroll on the left side, especially Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald and Roman Augustoviz of the Star Tribune, for all the latest news from around the league.

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