Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sweep Gives Gophers Momentum Heading Into Holiday Break

The Gopher hockey team desperately needed a sweep of lowly Michigan Tech this weekend in order to have any chance of making noise in the WCHA standings this season. With a 3-2 victory Saturday night in Houghton, the Gophers got their sweep and are now riding a three-game winning streak going into the holiday break.

Jake Hansen, Taylor Matson, and Mike Carman scored for the Gophers on Saturday, and eight different players notched points. Alex Kangas made 22 saves to pick up the victory.

With the win, the Gophers stretched their winning streak to a season-high three games. They have won four out of their last five starts to improve to 8-9-1 on the season and 6-7-1 in WCHA play.

The team's record is certainly not one over which to rejoice. However, there has been a fair amount of drama in the season's mythical first half, including:
  • Being shut out four times this season, including consecutive games against Denver for the first time in 60 years
  • The loss of Jay Barriball to season-ending knee surgery
  • Sam Lofquist's departure from the team left the Gophers with six healthy defensemen for over a month
  • Nick Leddy missed nine games with a broken jaw
  • The team is 2-6-0 in Friday night games, including being shut out on three occasions
  • A disappointing 3-6-0 mark at Mariucci Arena
  • A low power play success rate of 13.7% (11.5% in WCHA games)
  • Rumors of Jordan Schroeder and/or Aaron Ness leaving the team mid-season for the NHL
Give the Gophers a little credit for battling through the adversity of the first half. Coach Don Lucia has had to search for answers all season long. However, there is far too much talent on this roster to be battling through as many of the issues present early on. The lack of effort in Friday night games, for example, is simply inexplicable.

One area of non-concern for Gophers fans is in goal. Alex Kangas (7-6-0; .912 Sv%; 2.64 GAA) and Kent Patterson (1-3-1; .913 Sv%; 2.92 GAA) have been solid, and their numbers in conference play (.922 Sv% and 2.45 GAA for Kangas; .921 Sv% and 2.61 GAA for Patterson) have been even better. The issue in far too many games has been the team's spotty defensive play. The Gophers have been sloppy in their own end and have been significantly out-shot in far too many games. One has to wonder how dire the Gophers' straits may have been but not for the solid play of their goaltenders?

Still, despite everything, the Gophers are in seventh place in a tight WCHA, just three points out of first round home ice advantage. They are one point behind North Dakota in league standings.

Minnesota has the rest of the month off and will return to the ice in the Dodge Holiday Classic on January 2 and begin a string of six consecutive home games. In the DHC, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, and Clarkson round out the tournament, and the Gophs are also in action the following weekend with a non-conference series against struggling Harvard. Conference play returns on January 15 against North Dakota. One imagines the Gophers will not have to struggle too hard to get up for that series after being embarrassed up in Grand Forks at the beginning of the season.

With four winnable home games before the UND series, the Gophers have a chance to build some more momentum before heading into the season's final seven weeks - all conference games. They have a chance to improve the inexcusable poor home record and get back over the .500 mark. Not seeing Minnesota anywhere in the PairWise is a bit surprising, but it is still early. Although the non-conference schedule will not help the Gophers' RPI, the team still has conference games remaining against North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, UMD, Wisconsin, and St. Cloud State, which should definitely have a positive impact on their PairWise mark should they win the games.

There is still much of the season yet to be played, but the Gophers head into their three-week break feeling much better about themselves than they did a few weeks ago.

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

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