Thursday, December 3, 2009

Gopher Pucks Hope History Doesn't Repeat

The Gopher hockey team heads into this weekend's series against Minnesota State in a bit of a funk. The team is off to a 5-8-1 start overall (3-6-1 in the WCHA) and currently resides in ninth place in the WCHA. Prior to last Saturday's victory over Michigan State in East Lansing, the Gophers had lost four games consecutively, including perhaps the worst performance in recent memory, the 6-0 loss to Michigan the night prior to the victory.

The problems for Minnesota have been many. The defense has been spotty all season long, often leading to uncontested opportunities for their opponents against goaltenders Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson. The team has lacked scoring punch and has been shut out four times already this season. Players counted on for goal-scoring ability, such as Jordan Schroeder, Mike Carman, and Cade Fairchild, got off to slow starts (although Schroeder has come on nicely of late). Senior forward Jay Barriball is out for the season with a knee injury, and freshman defenseman Nick Leddy has missed a month with a broken jaw. Sophomore defenseman Sam Lofquist quit the team, leaving the Gophers with just six healthy defensemen in Leddy's absence. In short, it has been a trying season for coach Don Lucia, who is beginning to feel some heat due to the Gophers' spotty play.

Enter the Minnesota State Mavericks. The Mavs come into this weekend's series winners of three of their past four games, including a home sweep of Michigan Tech last weekend. MSU is 6-7-1 overall (4-7-1 in the WCHA), and is situated in seventh place in the league.

Offensively, MSU is led by a couple of senior forwards. Jerad Stewart (6-6-12) and Zach Harrison (4-8-12) have paced the Mankato offense, and Harrison picked up co-WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors for last weekend's 2-3-5 performance against Michigan Tech. Junior defenseman Ben Youds (0-10-10) has provided plenty of playmaking ability from the blueline for an experienced defensive core. In goal, junior Austin Lee has carried the bulk of the duty, posting a 5-4-0 mark in nine starts, with a GAA of 2.54 and a Sv% of .913. The goaltending situation was a big question mark for MSU heading into the season, when the Mavericks had to replace three-year starter Mike Zacharias. So far in 2009-10, Lee and freshman Kevin Murdock have answered that question.

This weekend features a home-and-home format. The Gophers will host Friday night, while the Mavericks will play host on Saturday. This will be the only regular season meetings between the two clubs.

The Gophers own a 28-5-6 advantage over MSU over the years. However, two of the losses came at the expense of MSU last season. The Mavericks swept Minny for the first time in school history in late-January which began the Gophers' late season free-fall. MSU went 2-1-1 against the Gophers last season and proved they are capable of beating the Gophers on any sheet of ice.

Minnesota has winnable series this weekend against Minnesota State and next weekend at Michigan Tech before heading into Christmas break. The Gophers need to look no further than one season ago to know that over-looking Mankato can have serious negative consequences. I like them to right the ship this weekend.

Prediction: Gopher Sweep

Elsewhere in the WCHA:
  • St. Cloud State at Alaska-Anchorage
  • Denver at Colorado College
  • North Dakota at UMD
  • Michigan Tech at Wisconsin

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