Friday, October 23, 2009

Two Weeks, Two Tough Tests for Gopher Six

National powerhouse Denver will invade Mariucci Arena this weekend for the second weekend of WCHA action for the Gophers, and they'll be in search of a little history.

With a sweep, DU coach George Gwozdecky will hit the 350-win mark at Denver,as well as the overall 500-win mark in his brilliant coaching career spanning 24 seasons at Wisconsin-River Falls, Miami (OH) and Denver.

More importantly, the Pioneers are anxious to enter WCHA play after two tough non-conference tests. DU opened the season at home against Vermont, which pushed eventual NCAA Champion Boston University to the brink in the East Regional last spring. After a split with the Catamounts, DU headed to Columbus to take on fellow 2009 NCAA Tournament team Ohio State. Following two splits in successive weekends, the Pioneers are 2-2-0 heading into Minneapolis.

Denver was a consensus favorite to win the WCHA based on many polls (including yours truly) and has a roster loaded with talent. Junior goaltender Marc Cheverie looks to build upon his brilliant sophomore season which saw the Nova Scotia native start all 40 games, pick up four shutouts, and be named to the WCHA All-Star second team. A consensus pre-season pick for WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, Cheverie has started two games this season and picked up wins both times, including a 39-save shutout of Ohio State last Thursday.

Senior forwards Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegesgger return to provide leadership up front and both are off to strong starts in 2009-10. Rakhshani has posted 1-4-5, while Ruegsegger has compiled 2-2-4 to lead the Pioneers in scoring on the young season. Both were prolific scorers for last year's WCHA regular season runners-up, with Rakhshani notching 15-22-37 and Ruegsegger chipping-in with 11-11-22. In all, ten Pioneers topped the 20-point mark in scoring last season, and eight return to this year's team.

Among the returnees, sophomore defenseman Patrick Wiercioch looks to build upon a brilliant freshman season in which he notched 12-23-35 on the DU blueline. Fellow sophomores Joe Colborne (10-21-31) and Luke Salazar (15-10-25) also had strong freshman seasons and are poised for fine follow-ups. Colborne is doubtful this weekend with a broken left index finger. Add in this year's strong freshman class, highlighted by NHL draftees Drew Shore, Matt Donovan and William Wrenn, and the Pioneers are loaded and balanced.

The Gophers are coming off a weekend in which they played one very poor game and one very good game, and came away with one point. North Dakota dominated Friday night 4-0 and the teams played to a 3-3 tie on Saturday. The goaltending duo of Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson split the starts last weekend, and it remains to be seen whether or not coach Don Lucia keeps this rotation going further into the regular season.

Last season, the two teams met only twice, with the Gophers winning 5-2 in the series opener before the Pioneers took the second game 4-0.

Look for the Gophers to play better at home this weekend against Denver than they did on the road last weekend in Grand Forks. They can ill-afford to make mistakes against the Pioneers. The DU power play was one of the nation's best last season, and with all the talent up front, they'll be gunning for the net again this season. As with any George Gwozdecky team, they'll be well-coached, meaning they will limit their mistakes.

The Gophers had their share of mistakes last weekend in the Forks. Lucia juggled lines and alternated goaltenders, and the team responded with a much better effort on Saturday. Still, if this team is to live up to its potential this season, they have to put two nights together each weekend. This weekend will be a good test for this squad and will be a sign of whether or not this team will compete for the top spot this season.

Prediction: Split

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