Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Emptying the Notebook......

  • Virginia found its head basketball coach, and it is not Tubby Smith. Gopher Nation can breathe a collective sigh of relief, as the Cavaliers have hired Washington State's Tony Bennett. Bennett, as you know, has Big Ten ties. His father, Dick, preceded him at Wazzu and was at Wisconsin prior to that. Bennett's Badgers went to the Final Four in 2000. This is good news for those who want Tubby to return - including me. However, as Myron P. Medcalf writes in the Star Tribune, his lack of unequivocal "no" to open jobs can create some uneasiness, as the Arizona and Georgia jobs remain vacant.

  • In Arizona, interim coach Russ Pennell will not return next season, but he led the team to a Sweet 16 berth in his only season, after the tumultuous succession of longtime coach Lute Olsen. That job remains open, and is a desirable one.

  • As far as Georgia is concerned, it appears the Bulldogs are interested in Missouri's Mike Anderson, fresh off his Sweet 16 performance. However, Anderson's agent says the report that he has been offered the job is inaccurate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ESPN cites sources saying Anderson has been offered the job. He'll take the job.

  • One job Tubby Smith certainly is not going to get is the Kentucky position. Memphis's John Calipari is in talks with KU about succeeding Billy Gillispie as head coach. John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader is reporting it is a done deal. This is great news for Kentucky basketball fans. I am a firm believer in balance in sports, and I truly believe that college basketball is better when Kentucky is good - as I believe that baseball is better when the Yankees are good, hockey is better when the Montreal Canadiens are good, and the NBA is better when the Celtics and Lakers are good. However, this is sad for a number of reasons. First, Calipari built a powerhouse at Memphis from a program mired in mediocrity. Coach Cal's winning percentage is nearly 80% since taking over in 2000, and came within seconds of achieving a national championship in 2008. He landed top recruit DeMarcus Cousins to Memphis for the upcoming season, but his letter of intent is not officially signed, seemingly freeing him up to join Calipari at Kentucky. Secondly, Memphis basketball became the toast of the town under Calipari, leaving the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies in the dust as far as fan interest is concerned. Here's hoping the Tigers continue their run under a different coach, but it would have been nice for a change to see a big-name coach at a somewhat less-than-marquee school say no to the big boys once in a while.

  • In WCHA notes, Colorado College goaltender Richard Bachman signed with Dallas over the weekend, putting them in a hole. Bachman had played virtually every minute in net during the two seasons he spent in the Springs. He was WCHA MVP and National Rookie of the Year in 2008. Coach Scotty Owens will find a replacement...that you can count upon. UMD's MacGregor Sharp signed with Anaheim on Tuesday, riding his "Mr. March" performance (6-3-9 in 7 games) into the pro ranks. Sharp was a senior for the Dogs this season.

  • The Bemidji State Beavers' appearance in the Frozen Four is simply amazing. In a tournament which defies description, the Beavers' presence seems destined. Still, it is utterly amazing that the 16 seed ends up among the final four teams in a 16-team field. It is the equivalent - albeit with fewer teams - of the winner of the NCAA basketball play-in game advancing to the Final Four. It just simply does not happen! Still, do not question the Beavers' being in Washington. They are talented, white hot right now, and have a conference berth for which to play, since BSU's CHA conference is going away after next season and the Beavers have applied to join the WHCA. Think Bruce MacLeod and the other WCHA suits will be watching this story over the next few weeks? Stay tuned.

Tomorrow's entry will be a Twins-related entry previewing the AL Central Division and the Twins' chances of winning it this year. Although this blog will largely transition into a baseball blog during the Twins' season - baseball is my first love - we'll fully cover the Frozen Four in Washington and monitor defections from WCHA teams.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Beavers Off to Washington!

To paraphrase legendary Dodger announcer Vin Scully's reaction after an injured Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate and smashed a game-winning homer against Oakland in the 1988 World Series, "in a NCAA Tournament of the improbable, the impossible has occurred." After upset after upset. game-tying goals in the final second of regulation. top seeds being dominated during opening round games in three brackets, and other high drama, the 2009 Frozen Four field is set, and it only contains one team which most believed would have been there as the pairings were announced - unless you were ardent fans of the teams who actually made it!

Boston University snagged a bid, albeit with high drama. The Terriers needed a power play goal by Jason Lawrence with a mere 15 seconds remaining to defeat New Hampshire 2-1 in the Northeast Regional. It was the fourth meeting of the season for the two Hockey East foes and it was a dandy. However, BU prevailed to supply just about the only degree of normalcy to an NCAA tournament rife with abnormality - although the game-winning goal in the final 15 seconds suited the rest of the tourney!

The shocker of the night - and of the tournament in general - came in the second regional final on Sunday in Grand Rapids, MI, where Bemidji State scored three times in the third period to break a 1-1 tie to crush Cornell 4-1. Tyler Scofield scored the game-winner and added an empty-netter to pace the Beavers. BSU out-scored Notre Dame and Cornell 9-2 in the regional and now become the first team from outside the four "major conferences" (WCHA, Hockey East, ECAC, CCHA) to advance to the Frozen Four.

This is truly an amazing feat. BSU was 16-15-1 in regular season play during the 2008-09 season and plays in the four-team CHA conference which will disband after next season. The Beavers were the tournament's #16 seed, and only avoided playing overall #1 seed Boston University because the selection committee did not want #15 seed Ohio State playing #2 seed Notre Dame in the first round, as it avoids first round conference match ups. Still, the prospects of a 16 seed advancing to the Frozen Four should make the "Holy Cross chanters" cease and desist.

Bemidji State has a fabulous new arena on the way for the 2010-11 season and has applied for admission to the WCHA. This would create a numbers problem for the WCHA (11 teams), but would be great for Minnesota hockey (five WCHA teams).

Those questions can be reserved for a later post. For now, congratulations to coach Tom Serratore and the BSU Beavers on achieving the impossible and for being the only Minnesota team left standing in the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bracket Buster Saturday!

Photo and boxscores from USCHO.com
If you filled out a bracket for the NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament and noted the following:
  • Only one of the four top seeds would be alive after the first round;
  • No #2 seeds would be left after Saturday's play;
  • An automatic bid qualifier would absolutely dominate the tournament's #2 overall seed in a game which was not nearly close as the four-goal margin dictated;
  • Two games on the first two days would be tied with less than a second remaining in the third period;
  • A regional final would be decided by a lengthy replay review which shows that a blast from the point went through the net in the second overtime period...

......you would be a clairvoyant and/or newly rich person!

Day two of the tournament was as wild, if not wilder, than the opening act on Friday. Two of the four tickets for Washington have been punched and none of the teams were who one would have expected.

  • In the West Regional in Minneapolis, Miami ended UMD's cardiac run with a 2-1 victory. The Redhawks advance to their first-ever Frozen Four appearance. Justin Mercier scored both Miami goals, while the Bulldogs could not replicate the energy they demonstrated in their impossible comeback against Princeton on Friday night.
  • The East Regional in Bridgeport sent Vermont to its first Frozen Four since 1996, with a 3-2 double-overtime victory over upstart Air Force. Dan Lawson's blast from the point fooled Air Force goaltender Andrew Volkening, but appeared to go wide. After a lengthy replay review, the officials determined that the puck actually traveled through the net before hitting the end boards, sealing the victory for the Catamounts. What a horrible way to lose!

So, Miami and Vermont punch the first two tickets to Washington, and await the remainder of the bracket to be filled. In my tournament preview, I actually picked Vermont to advance, but it was more like wishful thinking because I initially did not see many upsets in the field. Boy, was I wrong! Both teams were clearly the class of their brackets and deserve their places in the Frozen Four. Neither team will be a pushover for whomever they play.

Action got underway in the other two regionals on Saturday, and the results were just as unexpected.

  • In the Northeast Regional in Manchester, NH, the fact that New Hampshire won in overtime 6-5 in Manchester is not surprising in and of itself. The manner in which this was accomplished is sheer madness. In the wildest game of the tournament thus far, the Sioux and Wildcats traded goals throughout the game, with UND holding a 5-3 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third period. New Hampshire scored to cut the deficit to one with 9 minutes left, and Thomas Fortney's improbable goal with 0.1 seconds remaining sent the game into overtime. Peter LeBlanc notched a marker at just 45 seconds of overtime to complete the "Miracle in Manchester."
  • UNH will play Boston University, who supplied just about the only ounce of normalcy to the tournament in trouncing Ohio State 8-3. Jason Lawrence and Zach Cohen each scored twice for the Terriers, who now play the Wildcats in a Hockey East conference rematch. BU won 2 of 3 meetings against UNH during the regular season. Despite the game taking place in Manchester, BU is clearly the class of the tournament, and is a tough draw for UNH.
  • In the Midwest, Bemidji State shocked Notre Dame 5-1 in Grand Rapids, giving the Beavers their first-ever NCAA Tournament win (one more than St. Cloud State for all you Huskies' fans!). The game was simply dominated by Bemidji, as Notre Dame suffered breakdown after breakdown throughout. Tyler Scofield scored twice for BSU and also added an assist, while Matt Dalton made 34 saves.
  • BSU will face Cornell, who needed to score twice in the final four minutes, the game-winning goal coming with just 18 seconds left, to upset Northeastern 3-2. BSU and Cornell did not meet in the regular season.

The Frozen Four berth in the Midwest Region will go to either the third or fourth seed, joining fourth-seeded Miami and third-seeded Vermont in Washington. Only Boston U can prevent an all-low seed lineup should it take care of business tomorrow against third-seeded New Hampshire.

By Sunday evening, the field will be all set. The question is, what will happen next. This tournament has been impossible to handicap and intoxicating to watch.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Stoa Off to the Pro Ranks

The Colorado Avalanche signed Gopher hockey captain Ryan Stoa Friday to the standard three-year entry-level contract. The junior will pass up his final year of eligibility at the University. Stoa misses almost all of the 2007-08 season following surgery for a knee injury suffered in the second game of the season.

Stoa's loss will loom large for the Gophers. Besides being the team's captain, Stoa led the team in scoring with 24-22-46 in 36 games played. The defection was not unexpected, as the Avs' second round pick in 2005 was perceived as a top pro prospect.

The Avalanche also hold the draft rights to Gopher junior forward Mike Carman and freshman goaltender Kent Patterson. While there are no plans in place to sign Patterson at this time, it is unclear whether or not Carman will defect as well.

Stoa becomes the fifth (updated, sixth) WCHA underclassman to sign a pro contract, joining Wisconsin's Jamie McBain (Carolina), UAA's Paul Crowder (NY Rangers), MSU-Mankato's Trevor Bruess (Washington), and CC's Brian Connelly (Chicago), and CC's Richard Bachmann (Dallas).

Miracle in Minneapolis

The title of this post had to be changed from "Bracket-Buster Friday" after UMD's impossible comeback against Princeton Friday evening in the West Regional Semifinal in Minneapolis. On a day in which the top seeds in the West and East Regionals both lost in rather convincing fashion and the underdog won in the other East semifinal, the Bulldogs' comeback was the biggest shocker.

Princeton led UMD 4-2 with less than a minute remaining in the game. Jack Connolly's power play goal with less than 40 seconds remaining cut the deficit to one, and Evan Oberg's desperation shot at the net found its way past Princeton goaltender Zane Kalemba with 0.8 seconds remaining to force OT. Kalemba gloved the puck with less than 5 ticks remaining and elected to throw the puck toward the corner to avoid a face off to his left. The puck was thrown blindly in front by Mike Connolly, was deflected by MacGregor Sharp, and ended up on Oberg's stick. In a sequence which seemed like 5 minutes rather than 5 seconds, UMD tied the game and left the Tigers shell shocked.

Mike Connolly capped the amazing comeback with a power play goal at 13:39 of overtime to send UMD to the West Regional Final. The amazing final minute of regulation play is here, via YouTube.

What an opening act to the NCAA Tournament! We were 0.8 seconds from lower seeds winning all four games. Do you think Boston U and Notre Dame will dare overlook their #4 seeds today?

Friday, March 27, 2009

NCAA Hockey Tournament Preview - No Gophers Edition

The NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championships begin on Friday with games in Minneapolis and Bridgeport, CT, representing the West and East Regionals, respectively. The Midwest and Northeast Regionals will begin play the next day in Grand Rapids, MI and Manchester, NH. By late Sunday evening, the Frozen Four will be set, and the wildest weekend of Division I hockey will be complete.

After weeks of examining WCHA match ups and PairWise impacts, it's kind of nice to just sit back and watch hockey in its purest form. Of course, it would have been a lot nicer to have Gopher previews to accompany this post, but for college hockey fans, it's exciting nonetheless.

This year's field features the usual intriguing first round match ups, but the potential second round meetings should get hockey fans really excited. Some potential intra-conference meetings loom, putting the top seed in jeopardy of losing on the lower seed's home ice in the Northeast Region. While in the West, the hottest goaltender in the land stands poised to beat another conference opponent should both teams survive their first round tilts. In the Midwest, the top seed avoids any intra-conference match up in the second round, but now has the prospect of facing dangerous eastern teams in its second round games. Finally, in the East, the top seed has to survive arguably the toughest draw in the first round before moving on.

To refresh everyone's memory, the top seeds by region, in order of how they appear on the bracket, are:
  • Northeast - Boston University
  • Midwest - Notre Dame
  • West - Denver
  • East - Michigan

BU is the tournament's overall top seed, followed by Notre Dame, Denver, and Michigan, respectively. There is no re-seeding of the entries in the event of upsets.

At first glance, this looks like a pretty good Frozen Four. However, there are some intriguing possibilities I alluded to earlier in this post which can screw things up. We'll examine those by region.

  • Northeast - BU vs. Ohio State / North Dakota vs. New Hampshire - Ohio State is a tough draw for BU, and they'll certainly be rested. The Buckeyes did not play last weekend because they lost their first round CCHA playoff game to Alaska in three hard-fought games. Still, OSU finished fifth in a tough conference and fashioned an 11-game winning streak earlier in the season. North Dakota and UNH will be a tough tilt on the Wildcats' home ice. If North Dakota plays like it did at the WCHA Final Five, New Hampshire should roll, setting up a potential BU/UNH match up featuring two Hockey East teams on UNH's home ice, where the teams split two meetings during the regular season.
  • Midwest - Notre Dame vs. Bemidji State / Northeastern vs. Cornell - Don't think for a second Notre Dams is overlooking BSU, especially after the Beavers almost stunned #1 seed and defending national champion Denver in the 2005 tournament, losing in OT. In the selection show last Sunday, ND coach Jeff Jackson praised BSU coach Tom Serratore's bunch, but the Irish are a tough draw. Should they survive, both Northeastern and Cornell present challenges for the second-ranked team in the land.
  • West - Denver vs. Miami (OH) / UMD vs. Princeton - Denver coach George Gwozdecky used to coach Miami (OH) and the Redhawks will be up for the challenge. Looming in the other game is goaltender Alex Stalock of UMD, who compiled a GAA in the WCHA Final Five of 0.33 in three games and shut out both North Dakota and Denver. Do the Pioneers have enough firepower to beat him this time?
  • Northeast - Michigan vs. Air Force / Yale vs. Vermont - Air Force is probably the toughest first round draw for a top seed, led by national goal-scoring champion and Hobey Baker top 10 nominee Jacques Lamoureaux.

My predictions by regional. Please note, none of the teams meeting in the first round met during the regular season:

East:

  • Boston University vs. Ohio State - I like the Terriers in this one - big.
  • North Dakota vs. New Hampshire - The Wildcats will win on home ice.
  • Boston University vs. New Hampshire - The Wildcats and Terriers split their two games in Manchester in the regular season, and BU won the only match up on home ice. This one is hard to gauge, but I think BU will out-last them in a close one.

Midwest:

  • Notre Dame vs. Bemidji State - The Irish will win this one, but it'll be closer than you think.
  • Northeastern vs. Cornell - Tough one to call, but I'll say Cornell in a close game
  • Notre Dame vs. Cornell - Irish win in another low-scoring affair between two teams meeting for the first time this season.

West:

  • Denver vs. Miami (OH) - Denver wins in the "Gwozdecky Bowl"
  • UMD vs. Princeton - Stalock does it again, as the Bulldogs win, setting up a re-match with Denver
  • Denver vs. UMD - The Pioneers won three of four regular season meetings, but were shut out in the WCHA Final Five title game by the Dogs. This one could go all night, but Marc Cheverie out-duels Stalock as the Pioneers return to the Frozen Four.

Northeast:

  • Michigan vs. Air Force - This one will be a struggle, but I think the Wolverines will avoid the upset
  • Yale vs. Vermont - Pick one.......Vermont
  • Michigan vs. Vermont - The Catamounts will take care of the Wolverines in an upset during the teams' first meeting.

That's how I see it. I'll be at the West Regional all weekend and will file updates accordingly. Because hockey employs "hype week" before the Frozen Four (so as not to compete with the basketball Final Four), we'll have a lot of Twins-related stuff next week, but will back to preview the Frozen Four before they face off in Washington on April 9.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gopher Hockey Season in Review

Season Summary:
  • Overall Record - 17-13-7
  • Regular Season Record - 15-12-7
  • Post-Season Record - 2-1 (2 wins vs. St. Cloud State in first round WCHA; 1 loss vs. UMD in WCHA Final Five)
  • WCHA Record - 12-11-5
  • WCHA Finish - Fifth
  • Home Record (Regular Season) - 9-5-6
  • Away Record (Regular Season) - 5-7-1
  • Neutral Site Record (Regular Season) - 1-0-0
  • Leading Scorer - Ryan Stoa (24-22-46)
  • Leading Goaltender - Alex Kangas (17-11-6; .901 Save %; 2.79 GAA; 3 Shutouts)
  • Team Statistics

Season Recap:

As the Star Tribune's beat writer, Roman Augustoviz details, the Gophers' season seemed to take a turn in the College Hockey Showcase game against Michigan. The game was lost by the Gophers 6-3, but it was costly in so many other aspects.

  • First, it was the team's first home loss of the season after a 7-1-4 start
  • Secondly, it was goaltender Alex Kangas's first real clunker of the year. He gave up four goals on just 15 shots.
  • Finally, and most importantly, three players were hurt in this game. Forwards Jay Barriball and Mike Carman ended up returning later in the season. However, freshman forward Taylor Matson tore knee ligaments and was lost for the season.

The early promise to the season, culminating in a #1 ranking, was lost beginning with that game. The Gophers limped to a 10-12-2 finish and had to have some help in securing home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. After sweeping St. Cloud State at home, the team lost to UMD in the play-in game of the WCHA Final Five and was left on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament field. It is the Gophers' first season outside the NCAA field in nine seasons.

The season started to turn after the Michigan game, but the team was able to right the ship somewhat leading into the Christmas break. After the World Junior Championships, Lucia got sick, the team was steamrolled twice in Grand Forks (catapulting the Sioux to a MacNaughton Cup after a weak start), and fell from the rankings. A 1-6-1 swoon starting in late January sealed the Gophers' fate to finishing in the middle of the pack.

The Gophers dominated St. Cloud State, beating them 4 times in the regular season and twice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. SCSU accounted for 6 of the team's 17 wins and was the sole reason the team finished with home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Gophers were swept at home by Wisconsin, lost both ends of a home-and-home to MSU-Mankato for the first time ever, and were an abysmal 3-7-1 in road games in the WHCA against teams not named St. Cloud State.

Team Grades:

  • Forwards (B) - Ryan Stoa led the team in scoring (24-22-46 in 26 games) and the WCHA in goals. He was the only player to hit 20 in the regular season. Jordan Schroeder was spectacular in his freshman season (13-32-45 in 35 games). Jay Barriball (11-23-34 in 34 games) had a solid bounce back season, but the goal total is lower than the team needed. Mike Hoeffel (12-8-20) notched half of his goals on the power play. No other player hit double-digits in goals and inconsistency on the second line was a big reason why this team struggled in the second half of the season. The first line (Stoa, Schroeder, Barriball) was solid throughout, but the second line (Carman, Hoeffel, Flynn) was largely inconsistent. The third line (Lucia, White, Sacchetti) started to pick up the slack at the end of the season.
  • Defensemen (C) - Too often, they were weak at exactly the wrong time of the game. David Fischer made some tremendous plays and was the team's best defender game in, game out, but was also subject to glaring errors. Aaron Ness played timid at times - especially when time to shoot the puck - but he will continue his development into the closest thing this program has had to Jordan Leopold. Cade Fairchild (9-24-33 in 35 games) was the team's most improved player this year and quarterbacked the power play admirably down the stretch. The team will miss R.J. Anderson's steady play at the line.
  • Goaltenders (C+) - Kangas was solid at times, especially at the beginning of the season. However, he was absolutely awful in Grand Forks (the team was also, to his defense) and against Michigan Tech late in the season. He'll bounce back. Kent Patterson played sparingly, but was solid, save for the Friday night loss up in Houghton against Michigan Tech.
  • Newcomers (A-) - Ness was good, and Schroeder was the best player on the ice many nights (Update: Further proof here). Defenseman Sam Lofquist had some trouble adjusting, but appears to be a solid prospect. The other freshmen forwards (Nico Sacchetti, Joe Miller, Nick Larson, Jake Hansen) did not contribute much, although Sacchetti had some key goals down the stretch. Having Matson back next year will make this freshmen class much better.
  • Coaching (B) - Don Lucia held the group together through a difficult season. His illness and working so many newcomers into the line up proved problematic.

Flight Risks:

  • Stoa's as good as gone. The Colorado Avalanche second-round pick four years ago has developed into a prominent pro prospect, and the Avs will most likely put on a press to sign him. Lucia mentioned that he expects a decision on this soon, but also mentions that he may have left the door open for a return for his senior season here.
  • David Fischer is a first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens who have been aggressive in signing prospects in years past. My money is that he returns for a senior season.
  • Ness is a NY Islanders' pick but likely needs more seasoning. Garth Snow has said the right things about his development after last year's Kyle Okposo fiasco, but the smart money is on the youngster to continue his development at the U of M.
  • Schroeder's departure depends entirely upon where he goes in the 2009 NHL Draft. If he's a top 5 pick, he would be a strong candidate to depart early. If he goes lower, his chances of a return increase. He accelerated his high school education to arrive at the U a year early, thus explaining why he is only eligible now for the 2009 draft.

Key Losses:

The team only had two seniors, due to the early departures of seasons past (Kessel, Wheeler, Frazee). Defenseman R.J. Anderson was paired all season long with Cade Fairchild and provided a strong defensive presence while the more offensively-gifted Fairchild was freer to rush the puck. Although coming to the U as a puck-moving defenseman with lethal skills on the power play, Anderson's four years with the Gophers were marked by steady stay-at-home defensive play. His presence will be missed.

Forward Justin Bostrom was the team's best penalty-killer and anchored the team's fourth line, usually between two freshmen. He was a versatile, hard-working forward who had a solid reputation in the room.

Key Additions:

The incoming freshman class is documented in this release from the Gophers. Of the six players chronicled in the release,

  • Zach Budish missed his entire senior season with Edina due to a knee injury, and he may miss some time at the start of the next season.
  • Eden Prairie defenseman Nick Leddy won the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award this season.
  • Seth Helgeson of Sioux City of the USHL is a 6-3, 220 pound defenseman. That is exactly what this team needs.

Not on this list but eligible in 2009-10 is former Bowling Green forward Jacob Cepis. He transferred to the U mid-season and will be eligible after Christmas. He'll be a junior when he is eligible. Before his transfer, he had a solid freshman season for BGSU (15-16-31 in 38 games), but slipped in his sophomore year (1-4-5 in 18 games). He is a 5-8, 165 pound forward.

Also, freshman Taylor Matson will return to the Gophers after missing the season due to a knee injury suffered in the Michigan game. Although he notched only one goal in 13 games, Matson was impressive while receiving time on the fourth line, and had only recently moved up to the third line before being injured. He was quick and good with the puck, and the team certainly missed his skills after he was hurt.

2009-10 Outlook:

The 2008-09 season ended suddenly for the Gophers and left a bad taste in their mouths. Anger was also evident from the fan base who search to understand how a team so rich in talent and tradition can struggle to finish in the middle of the pack two years in a row and miss the tournament. One e-mailer mentioned that the Gophers are the same as Michigan football and Kentucky basketball - the expectations are just higher here. The prospects of watching this team sink into mediocrity are disheartening for Gopher fans to consider.

However, the 2009-10 version of this team should be a legitimate contender. Kangas is poised for a bounce back next year, and the team will have a large and experienced senior class (Lucia, Carman, Fischer, Flynn, Barriball, Schack, and Stoa - if he returns) which will add leadership to a team struggling to fit 12 freshmen into the lineup at the start of last season. Having Stoa back will be huge, but doubtful. Still, the prospect of a top line with Schroeder, Lucia, and Barriball is solid as well.

The defensive core is strong and experienced. Anderson's graduation will create an opportunity for a freshman (Helgeson?) to break into the top 6. The defense broke down far too many times in 2008-09 and will need to tighten up to ease the load on Kangas.

Lucia is taking a lot of heat for how this season ended. However, he deserves a pass for a number of reasons:

  • He has won two national championships
  • He was seriously ill during the second half of the season, which sapped his energy and led to being away from the team at times
  • Working 12 freshmen into the line up (9 by the end of the season) was difficult

Coach Lucia is a proven winner and is the right person to coach this team next year. If he is not back, it is because he decided to step away. However, in media reports, he is already looking forward to fall practice and getting back to work.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gopher Basketball Season in Review

Season Summary:

  • Overall Record - 22-11
  • Regular Season Record - 21-9
  • Big Ten Record - 9-9
  • Big Ten Finish - Eighth Place
  • Home Record (Regular Season) - 16-3
  • Away Record (Regular Season) - 4-6
  • Neutral Sites (Regular Season) - 1-0
  • Leading Scorer - Lawrence Westbrook (12.6)
  • Leading Rebounder - Paul Carter (4.5)
  • Assists Leader - Al Nolen (4.3)
  • Team Statistics

Season Recap:

A perfect 12-0 non-conference start evaporated into a 9-9 Big Ten season, deflating the Gophers' hopes of a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and the opportunity to make some noise in the big dance. The Gophers finished in 8th place in the Big Ten, which was due to its inability to close out a 12-point second half lead at home against Michigan in the final regular season game, which would have given the Gophers a higher seed and eliminated the need to play Michigan State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. After a win against Northwestern and a loss to Michigan State, the Gophers snagged a #10 seed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, but lost the opening round game to #7 Texas 76-62, ending the season. Stories of Tubby Smith's potential departure to schools such as Virginia, Georgia, and Arizona surfaced as Minnesota prepared for its first NCAA berth since 2005, but Smith told WCCO Radio over the weekend that he planned to stay at Minnesota. Stay tuned.

Despite unprecedented team depth, the Gophers never really seemed to find a rotation which consistently worked well together. Ultimately, the team was undone by its inability to take care of the basketball and its lack of consistent shooting - especially beyond the arc.

Team Grades:

  • Guard Play (C+) - Much improved at the start of the year, but the inability to find consistent scoring and take care of the ball hampered the team. Al Nolen seemed to regress as his sophomore year concluded, but he is still lightning-quick and is the team's best defender. Freshman Devoe Joseph improved as the year went on, although point guard is not his natural position. Junior Lawrence Westbrook led the team in scoring, was the team's most consistent scoring threat, and almost single-handedly won the Louisville and both Wisconsin games. However, consistency lacked in his game at times, and his shooting missed the mark all too often. Blake Hoffarber's sophomore season was erratic and he could not seem to find the rhythm he had last year, especially from three-point range.
  • Forwards (B) - Sophomore Paul Carter's athleticism and rebounding skill were evident at times, but consistency lacked throughout. Junior Damian Johnson was the team's best all-around player, and was the team MVP in my estimation.
  • Posts - (B) - The freshmen played admirably. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III were forced to mature early in the season. However, as is the case with all freshmen - especially big men - it takes a while to adjust to the speed of the college game and the physical play in Big Ten action. Both youngsters seemed to adjust as the season went on. Of the two, Sampson III's game seemed to progress more steadily.
  • Newcomers (A) - Carter, Iverson and Sampson III provided physical presences along with rebounding and shot-blocking powress, but all three need to put on more weight before next season. Sophomore Devron Bostick had a tough time adjusting to the Division I game early on, but was a solid player off the bench down the stretch. Joseph really improved in Big Ten play and will be solid as a 2-guard next season.
  • Coaching (A+) - Smith's coaching alone has led to several victories over the past two seasons. The team is better-coached now than at any time in recent history. His inability to find a solid rotation is more an indictment of the team's inconsistent play than his efforts. Plus, his 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes have both been stellar, highlighted by Minnesota kids choosing to stay home to play for the home team.

Flight Risks

None

Key Losses:

F Jamal Abu-Shamala and C Jonathan Williams are the team's only seniors. Abu-Shamala was a solid contributor for his first two years, earning a scholarship after his freshman season. His minutes peaked to 23 after his sophomore season, which was also Dan Monson's final year as coach. Once Tubby Smith took over prior to last season, Abu-Shamala's minutes dropped in half. Abu-Shamala's specialty was from three-point range, but never came close to the 47.5% he shot as a freshman. As the current season went on, Abu-Shamala was a larger part of the regular rotation and started several games down the stretch.

Williams played sparingly during a season hampered by injuries. His contributions were limited, but the coaches liked his work ethic and his performance in practice. G Kevin Payton is expected to leave the program though only a junior. He averaged only 3 minutes per game this season and did not see the floor at all in 22 regular season games, and all three post-season contests. His minutes were around 20 a game in the last year of the Monson era, but his style never meshed with Smith's.

Key Additions:

Tubby Smith's 2009 recruiting class is being heralded as a solid class, and certainly on par with a very strong initial class of 2008. The Strib's outstanding beat writer Myron P. Medcalf does a good job summarizing the new players here. In summary form, Hopkins's Royce White should help the Gophers tremendously inside and complement returning players Carter, Sampson III, and Iverson. Cooper slasher Rodney Williams's athleticism should make him an instant factor. Plus, the Gophers can certainly stand to get more athletic. Miami-Dade Community College's Trevor Mbakwe should also pay immediate dividends in rebounding, which the Gophers will need to improve in Big Ten play next year. Finally, CA prep Justin Cobbs will provide depth at the point guard position, and will supplement - at least initially - returner Al Nolen and allow Devoe Joseph to move to a more comfortable off-guard position. Of course, this section will need to be re-written should Smith depart.

2009-10 Outlook:

Again, if Smith departs for another coaching job, this section will have to be dramatically altered. The Gophers are in a position to challenge for a Big Ten title in 2009-10 should everyone return as expected - including Tubby Smith.

A year of Big Ten experience will lead to the continued improvement and development of big men Iverson and Sampson III. Johnson and Westbrook will provide senior leadership to a still-young team, while leading with their offensive and defensive capabilities. Joseph, Bostick, and Carter should continue to improve and provide athleticism. Hoffarber is poised for a bounce back year and force teams to respect his shooting beyond the arc. The newcomers Mbakwe, White, Williams, and Cobbs should all fit directly into the rotation from day-one. If White continues his maturation on and off the court, he'll be an immediate force in the Big Ten.

All of this hinges on Smith's return next season. If all goes as planned, the Gophers should be in a position to make some noise in the Big Ten as well as nationwide.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bracket Unveiled; Gophers Out

Here it is!

Northeast Regional (Manchester, NH):
  • #1 Boston University vs. #4 Ohio State
  • #2 North Dakota vs. #3 New Hampshire

Midwest Regional (Grand Rapids, MI):

  • #1 Notre Dame vs. #4 Bemidji State
  • #2 Northeastern vs. #3 Cornell

East Regional (Bridgeport, CT):

  • #1 Michigan vs. #4 Air Force
  • #2 Yale vs. #3 Vermont

West Regional (Minneapolis, MN):

  • #1 Denver vs. #4 Miami (OH)
  • #2 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #3 Princeton

Ohio State gets the 16th spot by virtue of a tie-breaker. Saturday's Wisconsin/North Dakota third place game in the WCHA killed the Gophers, as did the St. Lawrence/Princeton third place tilt in the ECAC. The Gophers absolutely needed Nodak and St. Lawrence to win.

DP will be at the West Regional next weekend and will cover the NCAA Tournament through its conclusion. A recap of the Gopher hockey season will appear on this site this week. The focus will also shift toward Twins baseball this week. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

Conference Tournaments Over, Selection Sunday Next!


Congratulations to the UMD Bulldogs, who won their first WCHA Final Five Saturday night with a 4-0 victory over Denver. Goaltender Alex Stalock was incredible in te Final Five, winning three games, posting two shutouts, and gave up only one goal in three games. UMD snags an automatic berth in the NCAA field with their win Saturday. Also, UMD becomes the first WCHA team to win the tournament from the play-in game slot.


Here is what we know:

The six tournament champions receiving automatic bids in the NCAA Tournament are:
  • WCHA - UMD
  • CCHA - Notre Dame
  • ECAC - Yale
  • Hockey East - Boston U
  • CHA - Bemidji State
  • Atlantic Hockey - Air Force

The PairWise "final edition" is as here. We can also assume that we know that in addition to the six teams listed above, Denver, Michigan, Northeastern, North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Cornell, Princeton, and Miami (OH) will also get bids.

What we do not know:

Who is the 16th team?

The Gophers are still alive, if the PairWise is to be believed. After play was concluded Saturday night, Minnesota ended up in a three-way tie with Ohio State and Wisconsin for 15th place. Keep in mind, Bemidji State gets an automatic bid even though they did not finish among the top 16 teams by virtue of their CHA championship. With their victory in Atlantic Hockey, Air Force snuck into the top 14, eliminating the Gophers' requirement of finishing 14th or higher.

The big question is how the selection committee will allocate the "bonus points" to the mathematical formula in determining the final field. The Gophers appear to be in the thick of the consideration, given the tie for 15th place and the fact that they are hosting a regional (although the committee would argue strenuously that this would have nothing to do with the final selection). Still, one would have to think that the prospect of a bunch of empty seats in one of the marquee arenas would help sway the committee.

Either way, it'll be fun to check into the selection show on ESPN2 at 10:30 CDT Sunday morning. Three words for Gopher fans: SECRET. BONUS. POINTS!!!!!!

A new post tomorrow after the field is announced with all four brackets to be previewed before next Friday's action begins.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saturday Morning Update

Bottom line, to get an at-large bid in the NCAA Hockey Tournament, the Gophers need the following to occur today.......
  • Boston University to beat Mass-Lowell in the Hockey East championship game
  • North Dakota to beat Wisconsin in the WCHA third place game
  • Mercyhurst to beat Air Force in the CHA championship game

According to Saturday morning's USCHO PairWise predictor, all three of these scenarios need to occur for the Gophers to make the tournament.

For Gopher fans, the North Dakota/Wisconsin game is at 2pm in St. Paul; BU/Lowell game is at 6pm CDT in Boston; Mercyhurst/Air Force is at 6pm in Rochester, NY. Keep an eye or ear tuned to these three games, check back here Sunday morning for updates, and tune into ESPN2 Sunday morning at 10:30 CDT for the selection show.

Have fun today!

** HT to Nate, Charlie, Carle, Jeff, and "The Mathemetician" for their assessments, as well as to USCHO.com (again) for continued tremendous coverage of college hockey.

Not Out Yet.......

Highlights from Friday (from a Gopher fan who wants his team to get an at-large NCAA bid's perspective):
  • Denver 3, Wisconsin 0 = Good
  • Minnesota-Duluth 3, North Dakota 0 = Not good
  • Boston University 3, Boston College 2 = Good (Gophers would have been out had BC won, because...
  • Mass-Lowell 3, Northeastern 2 (OT) = Very Bad (Gophers need to make sure Lowell does not win tomorrow)
  • Michigan 3, Alaska 1 = Good
  • Notre Dame 2, Northern Michigan 1 = Good
  • Cornell 4, Princeton 3 (2OT) = Good
  • Yale 4, St. Lawrence 3 = Good

So, the current PairWise is here.

UMD cemented a bid with their impressive win over North Dakota Friday night at the WCHA Final Five, so the Gophers can forget about leapfrogging them (a loss to North Dakota would and a Wisconsin win in the third place game on Saturday would have made that a possibility). Wisconsin is most likely out with its loss to Denver. The Badgers absolutely needed to go 2-0 this weekend to make the tournament. St. Lawrence's loss knocks them out of the field, and the prospects of a Cinderella story in the CCHA were eliminated as far as Alaska and Northern Michigan are concerned, as Michigan and Notre Dame meet for the title on Saturday. That is good for the Gophers, as neither NMU and Alaska can pass the M&G now.

The only wrinkle is in Hockey East. Lowell's victory over Northeastern screwed things up for the Gophers. Had Northeastern won Friday, we'd most likely be looking at a Gopher bid. Now, the prospect of Lowell winning Hockey East puts Minnesota's potential bid in jeopardy, as Lowell can pass the Gophers with a win over Boston University. A watchful eye will be on that game Saturday evening.

North Dakota cost itself a #1 seed with its loss to UMD. Denver will likely retain its top seed win or lose Saturday.

WCHA Championship Game:

  • #7 UMD (or rather, Alex Stalock) vs. #2 Denver - The Pioneers went 3-1-0 against UMD this season. Can Stalock continue his unconsciousness and complete the sweep for the Dogs?
  • Prediction - Denver wins a close one, delivering classy coach George Gwozdecky a second-straight Broadmoor Trophy.

WCHA Third Place Game (or "The Don Lucia Classic):

  • #3 Wisconsin vs. #1 North Dakota - The teams split four games this season with each winning a game on the other's home ice. Wisconsin's season is over win or lost and UND will not have a seeding for which to play (they're pretty much locked into a second seed). This one will likely be one for the backups.
  • Prediction - Who cares? However, UND wins.....

Keep the faith, Gopher fans!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Not a Good Day for the Maroon and Gold

  • The Gopher Basketball team's NCAA Tournament run was one-and-done with a 76-62 loss to Texas Thursday evening in Greensboro, NC. A.J. Abrams paced Texas with 26 points, highlighted by 8-15 shooting from three-point range. Dexter Pittman added 17 points and 16 rebounds (5 offensive), as the Longhorns chewed-up Minnesota on the glass, 54-37. The Gophers shot just 41% (31% from beyond the arc), but Texas's outside shooting was just too much, especially in the second half. The Longhorns advance to play Duke on Saturday, while the Gophers will return home.
  • There will be no further NCAA Basketball Tournament coverage on this site in light of the Gophers' loss. We'll have a recap of the Gopher Hoops' season coming up later in the week.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

On the hockey side, the Gophers will now await the selection committee's decision on NCAA Tournament bids after losing to UMD 2-1 at Xcel Energy Center in the play-in game of the WCHA Final Five. The Bulldogs will move on to play North Dakota Friday evening, while the Gophers are done and have to wait to see if they earned a bid in the tournament, the field of which will be announced on Sunday morning.

MacGregor Sharp and Matt Greer scored for UMD, and Alex Stalock was spectacular in goal, stopping 39 of 40 Minnesota shots. Cade Fairchild notched the only tally for the Gophers, who battled the flu throughout the game. Starting goaltender Alex Kangas stopped 9 of 10 UMD shots before leaving before the start of the second period due to illness. Kent Patterson made 19 of 20 saves after entering in relief.

The Gophers simply did not have their legs in this one. UMD came out hungry in the first period and Sharp's goal after a misplayed Kangas rebound gave the Dogs a 1-0 first period lead. Stalock was spectacular during a mid-first period two-man Gopher advantage, and never looked back. The Gophers were flat in the second period and gave up Greer's goal after surrendering a 2-on-1 after a UMD penalty expired. After Patterson made the first two saves, Greer banged in the rebound to make it 2-0 after two periods.

Minnesota controlled the action in the third period and Fairchild's goal with 13:52 remaining gave them a boost. However, Stalock stood his ground, and the Gophers missed a glorious chance on a Nico Sachetti re-direct which went just wide of the net, giving the Dogs the well-deserved win.

Now, we wait. The PairWise after Thursday's loss shows the Gophers dropping to 14th position and leapfrogged by UMD. What Gopher fans need to do the balance of the weekend is root for the following teams currently in the top 10 of the PairWise (with Friday's opponent listed as well):

  • Boston University - vs. Boston College
  • Notre Dame - vs. Northern Michigan
  • Michigan - vs. Alaska
  • Denver - vs. Wisconsin
  • North Dakota - vs. UMD
  • Northeastern - vs. Mass-Lowell
  • Yale - vs. St. Lawrence
  • Vermont - Idle
  • New Hampshire - Idle
  • Cornell - vs. Princeton

If teams in the top ten win out this weekend, the Gophers should be able to snag an at-large bid despite not playing Friday or Saturday. Therefore, as far as the WCHA is concerned Friday, go North Dakota (ouch, that hurts) and Denver!

Strange as it may sound, the Gophers are probably in a better position now with the loss than they would have been had they beaten UMD and lost Friday to North Dakota.

My buddy, Jeff Atkins, breaks down the PairWise as follows:

The PairWise looks as expected, UMD leapfrogging the Gophers (mind you, they can still be reeled in with 2 more losses this weekend). Miami also jumps overs the Gophs (I don't think they can be caught, who would think not playing actually benefits you), as we currently sit at the final 14th spot.

The big scores we'll have to keep an eye on are BC and St. Lawrence (Hockey East does not have a 3rd place game), so we really do need 2 losses from St. Lawrence. Considering they are the 4th place team out of the top 4 left in ECAC I hope this will happen easily enough. Obviously we also can't have teams like UMD, Wisconsin, Fairbanks, Northern Michigan, Mass-Lowell winning their tourneys.

In many scenarios, the Gophers end up tied with Ohio St. in pairwise points. Ohio St has the RPI advantage, so it may very well come down to secret bonus points.

Friday WCHA Matchups:

  • #3 Wisconsin vs. #2 Denver - The Pioneers went 4-0 against the Badgers in 2008-09
  • #7 UMD vs. #1 North Dakota - The Bulldogs went 1-0-1 on the Sioux this year. However, both wins occurred in 2008.

Predictions:

  • Wisconsin/Denver - Have to go with Denver in this one. It's a hard prospect to beat the same team five times in the same season, but the Pioneers have some added incentive to sew up a #1 seed with a win here and end Wisconsin's season at the same time. Coach George Gwozdecky's can end his alma mater's run with a win, as the Badgers absolutely need to go 2-0 this weekend to leapfrog Minnesota and snag an at-large bid.
  • UMD/North Dakota - The Sioux are 15-2-3 since the calendar turned to 2009 and will win this one easily. They will make a strong case for a #1 seed with a regular season and tournament championship.

I'll be at both games Friday and will have a recap Saturday despite the Gophers' absence in the Friday slate of games for the first time since 1998.

In other news around the WCHA:

  • The league's awards were announced, and there was some M&G representation
  • The finalists for the Hobey Baker Award were also announced. Congratulations to Minnesotan Jamie McBain of Wisconsin being nominated, but the rest of the league was snubbed big-time.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

WCHA Final Five Preview


First off, a quick interlude to get you into the mood for the WCHA Final Five, starting Thursday night.

The PairWise as we stand going into Thursday's game is as follows. The Gophers are tied for 11th place with Princeton. Minnesota plays Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday night; UMD is currently in 13th position. Princeton's opponent in the ECAC Tournament on Friday is Cornell, rated 10th. Both games have enormous NCAA Tournament implications for all teams involved. After the Minnesota/UMD game on Thursday night, the bottom of the tournament bracket will maybe be a bit clearer - at least as far as Minnesota or UMD is concerned.

Jayson Moy's Bracketology leading into this week's tournament has a slight shift within the regionals. For example, the Mariucci Regional got a little tougher for the Gophers, with this week's accompanying teams being Denver, Northeastern, and Miami. Last week's version had the Gophers paired with Michigan, Princeton, and Vermont. Ohio State is not included in this week's version; UMD is; Wisconsin isn't in either.

The only amateur bracketologist I trust, Jeff Atkins, assesses the Gophers' prospects this weekend like this:

One of my favorite parts of Final Five week is getting to mess around with the Pairwise Predictor! Unfortunately I've been a bit busy at work, but I was playing around with it a bit this morning, and the Gophers are in a very precarious position if they lose on Thursday. If they lose that game, and all the other favorites win, they will be tied for 14th with UMD, and have the RPI tiebreaker. Although, incredibly, Air Force would jump us, so I guess that means the top 15 go to NCAAs.

But there is lost of scenarios out there that would sent the Gophers out of the top 14/15.... BC could apparently jump us with just 1 win. UMD would jump us with a win in the 3rd place game. We can't catch St. Lawrence if they win once.

If they lose, it could be a 50/50 shot on whether they make the tourney.

Of course, these are just the raw pairwise numbers... we don't know how many secret bonus points NCAA will award...

The "Bonus Points" to which Jeff refers are described below from USCHO's site:

There is another component to the process, added in 2003, which adds "bonus points" to a team's RPI for "good wins." Good wins are defined as victories against a team, in a non-conference game, that ends the season ranked in the Top 15 of RPI. More bonus points are awarded to teams winning a neutral-site game than a home game, and even more bonus points are awarded for such a win on the road. However, since the NCAA doesn't publish the exact bonus points awarded, USCHO can no longer guarantee the final PWR list is correct.

Taking the Gophers into consideration, they finished 3-1-2 outside the WCHA this year. The six games broke down as follows:

  • New Hampshire (1-0-1)
  • Michigan (0-1-0)
  • Michigan State (0-0-1)
  • Brown (1-0-0)
  • Northeastern (1-0-0)

The non-conference schedule featured three teams ranked in the top 15 of the RPI as we write (New Hampshire, Michigan and Northeastern), and they went 2-1-1 in those four games, all played at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers only had one neutral site game in 2008-09, which was a win against MSU-Mankato at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Looking at UMD's case, the Dogs went 6-1-1 outside the WCHA this year, broken down as follows:

  • at Lake Superior State (0-0-1)
  • at Northern Michigan (1-0-0)
  • Western Michigan (2-0-0)
  • Mass-Lowell (1-0-0)
  • Notre Dame (0-1-0)
  • Bemidji State (2-0-0)

Of the teams UMD played outside the conference, only Notre Dame is currently in the top 15 of the RPI, and UMD lost that game. Bemidji State has an automatic bid sewn up in the NCAA Tournament, but its RPI is currently 37th. The Bulldogs went 2-0-1 at neutral sites, but one of those wins was against a conference team, St. Cloud State. Using this analysis, the Bulldogs are clearly behind the Gophers in a bonus points situation.

A team like Wisconsin, currently outside the NCAA Tournament picture, is in its current situation because of its horrendous 0-6-1 start, and its lack of non-conference victories. Sconnie went 3-4-1 in non-conference play, which broke down as follows:

  • at Boston College (0-1-0)
  • at New Hampshire (0-1-0)
  • Michigan State (1-0-0)
  • Michigan (1-0-0)
  • Alabama-Huntsville (1-0-0)
  • Lake Superior State (0-0-1)
  • Northern Michigan (0-2-0)

The win against Michigan was certainly a "quality win." BC and UNH both are in the top 15 of the RPI, but the Badgers were 0-2-0 against them. The two losses to Northern Michigan certainly did not help matters.

So, the Badgers are in a position where they most likely need to win the WCHA Final Five in order to get an at-large bid.

Keep an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard this weekend, WCHA fans. It will have a lot to say whether the WCHA gets three or four bids in the tournament. Which leads us to the Final Five preview.....

Minnesota vs. UMD:

The two teams met only twice this season, with the Gophers beating and tying the Bulldogs at Mariucci Arena in late February. As mentioned earlier, this game has enormous post-season implications for both teams, and it's largely a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament as much as it is for the WCHA Final Five. The winner plays WCHA regular season champion North Dakota Friday night.

Minnesota's key to victory lies almost entirely on the defensive end, namely solid play from Alex Kangas in goal, and staying out of the penalty box. Kangas was solid both games in the first round against St. Cloud State, and will need to carry the momentum forward to Thursday evening. In an effort to perhaps shake Kangas up, Coach Don Lucia started seldom-used backup Kent Patterson in the first game against UMD on February 27, and the move seems to have worked (absent the Friday night debacle against Michigan Tech a week later). Kangas stopped 63 of 65 St. Cloud shots in the two victories in the first round. Including the regular season finale at Michigan Tech, Kangas is 3-0-0 with two shutouts and a 0.977 save percentage.

UMD's power play is ranked third in the nation at 22.0%. The Gophers have the fourth-ranked penalty kill (88.6%), so it should be a good match up. Still UMD forwards Justin Fontaine (9PPG), MacGregor Sharp (6 PPG), and Josh Meyers (6 PPG) are dangerous with the man advantage. Sharp lit the Gophers up for a natural hat trick in the second game at Mariucci, and cannot be left alone in front of the net. Goaltender Alex Stalock ranks fifth nationally (second in the WCHA) in minutes played this season, and has a .920 save percentage and 2.24 GAA.

Prediction: Gophers win 4-2 and cement a NCAA Tournament berth.

Friday: Final Five - Day 2 previews, PairWise update, and Gopher basketball NCAA Tournament update

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wednesday Morning File Dump....


  • Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils broke Patrick Roy's record for goaltending victories Tuesday evening, beating Chicago 3-2 in Newark. This record is extraordinary for a number of reasons. First, Brodeur achieved his record 552nd victory in 987 games; Roy needed 1,029 games to reach 551 wins. Secondly, Brodeur recorded all his victories in one uniform, which is highly improbable given the free agency era in which he played. The argument will be presented for years to come, but I believe Martin Brodeur is the greatest goaltender who ever played. His numbers outside the pure win total back this up (headlined by three Stanley Cups and four Vezina Trophies - League MVP). Plus, he's still a workhorse at age 36 (this year excepted because of injury), and he has a lot of hockey left to play. It is not inconceivable that he'll record 100 additional victories before it is all said and done on a brilliant career, spent entirely in New Jersey.
  • This video from YouTube will get the Minnesota North Stars fans' blood pressure up! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tztalRFKAvk I got sucked into this promotion back in 1991-92 - my senior year in high school.
  • The Twins won Tuesday, snapping a four-game Grapefruit League losing streak. In this piece, Joe Christensen reports that the Twins passed on signing C Ivan Rodriguez. This is a wise move, as the Twins would be better off with a platoon of Mike Redmond and anyone else (including just-released the Oakland A's Rob Bowen) than a 38-year-old who hit .219/.257/.323 in 105 plate appearances after his trade from Detroit to the Yankees.
  • LaVelle E. Neal has some detail about the Twins' cuts from Tuesday.
  • Check out Seth Stohs's site for his AL Central Division preview podcast with bloggers representing all five teams in the division (Minnesota, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Detroit). My AL Central preview will appear on this site in early April - after March Madness.
  • Speaking of March Madness, I like the Gophers on Thursday evening against Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If you disagree, let me know.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gopher Mens' NCAA First Round Preview

The Gophers snagged the 10 seed in the East (or Boston) Regional and will play the seventh-seeded Texas Longhorns in first round action Thursday evening in Greensboro, NC. The winner of this game will play the winner of the Duke/Binghamton match up on Sunday afternoon, also in Greensboro.

The two teams had almost identical records in 2008-09, with the Gophers going 22-10 (9-9, eighth in the Big Ten) and the Longhorns finishing 22-11 (9-7, sixth in the Big 12). UT scored an average of 72.2 points per game, while allowing 65.5; the Gophers were 66.5 and 61.1, respectively. Scoring-wise, Texas is led by A.J. Abrams (16.3 a game) and Damion James (15.4, plus 9.2 rebounds a game), while Minnesota is paced by Lawrence Westbrook (12.4) and Damian Johnson (9.7). Minnesota has the edge in depth with eleven players averaging double digits in minutes; Texas has eight. In fact, Abrams and Justin Mason averaged over 30 minutes a night (the Gophers had nobody over 26).

Texas featured quality non-conference wins against Oregon, UCLA, Villanova, and Wisconsin. In the Big 12, the Horns played four ranked teams, going 1-3 in those games. The conference schedule featured a three-game winning and three-game losing streak - nothing greater. Its run in the Big 12 Tournament included wins against Colorado and Kansas State, before coming to an unexpected end against Baylor.

Here is how ESPN.com's Andy Katz summarizes the Longhorns:

Hardest team to figure: Texas. The Longhorns were once an elite team, beating Villanova and Wisconsin. But the Longhorns have been reliably inconsistent throughout the season. If they figure themselves out, they could make the Sweet 16 by beating Minnesota and Duke.

The key for the Gophers in this one is to contain Abrams and limiting James's opportunities inside. The same tried and true applies to the Gophers: They need to take care of the basketball, play perimeter defense, run the court, and create turnovers leading to transition opportunities. It'll be interesting to see how Tubby's young team responds to the pressure that is March Madness.

Coming Thursday, I'll offer my fearless predictions - and maybe even link my bracket!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday Musings.....

  • The most current PairWise from USCHO.com is out, and the Gopher hockey team is currently tied for 11th. The one-spot jump was thanks to the Alaska Nanooks taking care of Ohio State last night in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. OSU had been tied with the Gophers.
  • Thursday's WCHA Final Five game against UMD is still huge. The Strib's Roman Augustoviz thinks the Gophers are in a "win-or-else" situation going into the game - and so are the Bulldogs. I tend to disagree with Roman (I think the Gophers are in for reasons I will articulate in Tuesday's entry), but the game still has huge tournament implications.
  • We have a new Mr. Hockey. Plus, he's headed to the University of Minnesota.
  • Thursday evening also has the makings of a Gopher fan's clickfest, as the Basketball team will play Texas at 6pm, and the hockey team will play UMD at 7. We'll have a more detailed game preview on Wednesday, but at first glance, it's a tough draw for the Gophers. Although a 10 seed is healthy for a team which struggled down the stretch (and for a team which was likely one of the last four in), having to play Texas in the first round and Duke (in Greensboro, nonetheless) is a tall order.
  • Here are Aaron Gleeman's top 40 Twins prospects for 2009. He also has a great analysis of how these prospects were acquired and the youth in reserve position-by-position. It makes one excited for 2009 and for the future.
  • Nick Nelson continues his position-by-position analysis of the Twins by examining my dad's favorite player, Nick Punto.
  • I'll switch to more Twins-related blogging after the Gophers' seasons conclude - hopefully after two national championships!
  • Finally, I attended the Gophers' playoff game Saturday night against St. Cloud State and saw a gentleman wearing a Holy Cross jersey. I guess the joke is on me, since the Gophers lost to Holy Cross in the 2006 Grand Forks Regional, and that he had to pay $100 for an official College of the Holy Cross jersey. If he was a St. Cloud fan, it's simply laughable that he'd choose to do this as an "in-your-face" move, since his squad is yet to win an NCAA Tournament game in seven tries. If he was a North Dakota fan, give it up! We've moved on here in Minny. Besides, UND did not win the title in 2006 either - Wisconsin did. It's not like we Minnesota fans go out and purchase jerseys which celebrate North Dakota's misfortunes - there would certainly be enough of those to go around. However, please come down to the Twin Cities again this weekend, Sioux fans, and spend a lot of money!

Tuesday through Thursday will contain entries with previews for the hockey and basketball tourneys.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

They're In!


The Gophers received an at-large bid Sunday afternoon to the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament. Seeded #10, they'll play Texas in the first round match up Thursday in Greensboro, NC. The appearance is the Gophers' first since 2005 and just the second since 1999.

The Gophers were just one of seven teams from the Big Ten receiving invitations (Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan were the others). The ACC, Big East, and Big Ten each contributed seven teams this year. The Big East had three of the number one seeds (UConn, Louisville, and Pitt). The Gophers' victory over tournament top seed Louisville no doubt played a big part in the selection, as they may well have been the last team in the tournament according to CBS's bracket analysis.

If the Gophers were to win, they'd play Duke (who will undoubtedly roll over Binghamton in its first round game in Greensboro) in the second round, so let's cue up all the Duke haters just in case!

Later in the week, we'll have a breakdown of the match up. Thursday is setting up to being busy with the Gopher basketball and hockey teams both in action, so we'll have plenty of posts before then. In the meantime, congrats to Tubby Smith for becoming just the sixth coach all-time to lead four teams to the NCAA (at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota) and his team for a bid well-deserved.

Sweeeeeep!

The Gophers made it six-for-six against St. Cloud this season, winning 3-0 at Mariucci Arena Saturday night to sweep the first round WCHA playoff series, advancing to the Final Five, and ending the Huskies' season.

Alex Kangas stopped all 34 St. Cloud State shots, while Ryan Stoa scored twice - the second into an empty net, and Jay Barriball added the other goal for the Gophers. Stoa assisted on the Barriball goal, and defenseman Cade Fairchild added two assists. Jase Weslosky stopped 18 Gopher shots in a losing cause.

The story of Saturday's game was the Gophers' defense. Although out shot significantly by the Huskies, the Gophers' defense rarely offered second chances. The defense collapsed on St. Cloud shots and cleared the puck. On the offensive side, the Gophers capitalized on what few chances they created. Had it not been for the solid play of Weslosky, the margin of victory would have been more significant.

We now move onto the Final Five next weekend in St. Paul. The Gophers are assured of a spot, as they have in every year since 1998 when they lost to UMD in the opening round. The field is also set, as no games went the full best-of-three.

So, the field is now set for next weekend's tournament:

Thursday, March 19:

  • #7 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #5 Minnesota - The Gophers tied and won the only two meetings against UMD this regular season.

Friday, March 20:

  • #1 North Dakota vs. UM/UMD - The Sioux swept the Gophers in Grand Forks and lost and tied the only two meetings against UMD at the DECC in November.
  • #2 Denver vs. #3 Wisconsin - Denver won all four regular season meetings

Now, for the all-important PairWise....The Gophers remained constant from Friday; still tied for 12th place with Ohio State and Princeton. Ohio State beat Alaska-Fairbanks to force a third game in the CCHA playoffs, while Princeton lost to Union, requiring a decisive third game in their ECAC series. Of the teams ahead of the Gophers, the following teams are either required to play decisive third games in their series tomorrow or have been eliminated:

  • #1 Boston University - Lost to Maine Saturday and will play Sunday
  • #6 Northeastern - Beat UMass Saturday and will play Sunday
  • #8(t) Vermont - Eliminated by Mass-Lowell
  • #8(t) New Hampshire - Eliminated by Boston College
  • #10 Miami - Lost to Northern Michigan Saturday and will play Sunday
  • #11 Cornell - Beat RPI Saturday and will play Sunday

The UMD Bulldogs are lurking right behind in 15th, so Thursday's game will mean a lot. We'll have more on the PairWise later in the week, but at first blush, the Gophers' biggest threat of missing the tournament - short of losing Thursday night - is one of the upstarts listed above winning their conference tournaments and stealing at-large bids from teams like the Gophers, Wisconsin, and UMD.

Personally, I believe the Gophers qualified for the tournament with Saturday's win, but we'll wait until next weekend to sort that out.