Friday, November 6, 2009

Border Battle Opens Tough Month for Gopher Six

The month of November was going to be tough for the Gopher hockey team before the season even started. Taking a look at the schedule:
  • November 6-7: at Wisconsin
  • November 13-14: vs. Bemidji State
  • November 20-21: vs. UMD
  • November 27: at Michigan
  • November 28: at Michigan State

All five of those teams are currently ranked in the top 20 in the latest poll.

Couple that with the Gophers' tough 0-3-1 start, including being shutout in all three losses, and that made last weekend's series against Alaska-Anchorage that much more critical for the team to pick up some wins, score some goals, and gain a little confidence heading into a very tough stretch. The Gophers scored nine goals and picked up two wins against UAA, but it came at a price when freshman defenseman Nick Leddy broke his jaw in a hit to his head in the first game of the series and will likely miss six weeks. Then, more bad news came in practice.

In a routine Tuesday morning practice, senior forward Jay Barriball injured his knee and will need surgery. The surgery, likely to take place Friday, will knock him out for the season.

Losing two regulars is not the way to start a tough month.

Still, the Gophers are operating with a bit more confidence going into this weekend's series than they were seven days ago. Getting two victories, even if they came at the expense of one of the WCHA's perennial bottom-feeders, silenced the critics for one week. Plus, they are heading into a place where they have enjoyed some road success over the years.

Since coach Don Lucia took over the program for the 1999-2000 season, the Gophers have achieved at least some level of success in Madison, albeit moderate. Taking a look at the series over the years:

  • 1999-00: 0-2-0
  • 2000-01: 1-1-0
  • 2001-02: 1-1-0
  • 2002-03: 2-0-0
  • 2003-04: 0-1-1
  • 2004-05: 1-1-0
  • 2005-06: 2-0-0
  • 2006-07: 1-1-0
  • 2007-08: 0-1-1
  • 2008-09: 1-0-1
  • Total: 9-8-3

Not exactly a sterling record, but Wisconsin is a tough draw each year and the Kohl Center is historically a very difficult place to play. The building boasts the league's largest capacity, and things are always hopping in that building. To have a mark over .500 in ten seasons is solid.

The Badgers are off to a bit of a sluggish start to the season but are fresh off an impressive sweep of New Hampshire last weekend. UW outscored the Wildcats 10-2 and completely dominated the play all weekend. Including the past weekend's sweep, Wisconsin is 3-2-1 on the season and 1-2-1 in the WCHA.

Wisconsin is led in the scoring department by junior defenseman Brendan Smith (2-7-9) and sophomore forward Derek Stepan (3-2-5). Freshman defenseman John Ramage (2-3-5) is off to a fine start to his collegiate career, and veterans Blake Geoffrion (3-1-4) and Jordy Murray (3-1-4) add leadership. The Badgers are blessed with a host of solid, puck-moving defensemen in Smith, Ramage, Ryan McDonagh, and Jake Gardiner.

In the nets, the Badgers were tasked with replacing two-year starter Shane Connelly, and have done so this season with a tandem. Returnee Scott Gudmandson (3 GP, 1-1-1, 1.63 GAA, .938 Sv%) and Boston University transfer Brett Bennett (3 GP, 2-1-1, 1 SO, 1.34 GAA, .931 Sv%) have been excellent so far this season.

It will be a difficult two games for the Gophers in Madison. They do not have the weight of a winless season on their collective backs. Several players picked up their first points last weekend, most prominently Tony Lucia (3-2-5, WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors) and Jordan Schroeder (0-4-4). Mainstays Aaron Ness, Zach Budish, and Cade Fairchild each picked up their first points of the season. Junior Alex Kangas played both games in goal and was solid each night, racking up two wins.

This weekend marks the beginning of a tough month. The Gophers have had some adversity in this young season, both on and off the ice. At least there isn't the same pressure they faced a week ago. Look for a confident Gopher team to show up in Madison Friday night.

Prediction: Split

No comments:

Post a Comment