Sunday, May 16, 2010

R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

Dead at 67 Sunday morning.

May the music live forever in memory for the Godfather of Heavy Metal.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tamer Opening Weekend of NCAA Hockey Tourney

The breaking news last Friday regarding Frank Mazzocco’s firing from FSN North’s Gopher hockey broadcasts trumped NCAA Tournament coverage. However, the weekend featured several intriguing matchups, some wild finishes, and one shocker. However, in comparison to the craziness that was the 2009 NCAA Tournament, this year’s version seemed somewhat tame.

In the East Regional, top-seeded Denver seemed poised for a virtual cakewalk to the Frozen Four, but ran into the freight train that was Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT scored first and never let the Pios in the game and bounced George Gwozdecky’s club from the tournament with a 2-1 victory. The Tourney’s first game provided the first shocker, and Denver was bounced from the Tournament for the third-consecutive season in the first round – all the while DU held its bracket’s top seed. Third-seeded New Hampshire throttled Cornell 6-2 with four third-period goals setting up an RIT/New Hampshire regional. In a matchup nobody expected to see, RIT controlled the play for much of the night and notched three goals within 1:34 of the second period to take the regional 6-2. In just the squad’s fifth season of Division I play, RIT was headed to the Frozen Four and became the first Atlantic Hockey club to qualify for the final group.

In the West Regional, St. Cloud State and Northern Michigan met in the first matchup and the Huskies were looking for their first NCAA Tournament victory in the program’s Division I history. In seven prior appearances, St. Cloud compiled an 0-8 mark. Northern didn’t make it easy on SCSU, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game on a goal with 3:49 remaining in the third period, and St. Cloud needed two overtimes to beat Northern Michigan 4-3 on a goal by Tony Mosey. Top-seeded Wisconsin held off Vermont in the nightcap 3-2 to set up an all-WCHA Regional Final the next night. Red-hot Sconnie avenged the defeat by St. Cloud a week prior in the WCHA Final Five to take the Regional with a 5-3 victory, returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since winning it all in 2006.

In the Midwest Regional, #1 overall Tournament seed Miami (OH) matched up against plucky Alabama-Huntsville in the first game. UAH was quite a story; playing in a lame-duck conference and being the only school which did not find a conference home for the 2010-11 season (they’ll play as an independent). Huntsville was also looking to become the first team to win an NCAA Tournament game despite fashioning a losing regular season record, and they gave the RedHawks all they could handle before Miami held them off for a 2-1 victory. In the second semi-final, third-seeded Michigan continued its hot streak with a 5-1 drubbing of Bemidji State. The Wolverines stretched their winning streak to seven games – all with walk-on goaltender Shawn Hunwick in the nets, replacing starter Bryan Hogan – with the victory over BSU and made the Tournament only because of that winning streak, stretching their incredible Tournament appearance mark to 20 consecutive seasons. An all-CCHA final ensued with Miami facing Michigan, and the battle was incredibly spirited. Save for a 10-minute stretch toward the end of regulation where Miami controlled play, Michigan buzzed all night long and put constant pressure on Miami goaltender Connor Knapp, but the netminder stood firm and turned aside 55 shots in the game which went into double OT. In the second extra session, Miami’s Alden Hirschfeld scored to send the RedHawks back to the Frozen Four for the second-consecutive season.

In the Northeast, top-seeded Boston College was not terribly impressive in beating Alaska in the opening game 3-1, but they got the ‘W.’ In the second semi-final, Yale started out fast and grabbed a 3-0 lead over North Dakota and survived a furious Sioux rally in the third period to hold on for the 3-2 win. That set up a wild Regional final which eventually saw BC survive 9-7. The Eagles put on an impressive offensive performance and opened up a 9-4 lead with less than 13 minutes remaining in the game. Yale actually played three goaltenders in an effort to stop the bleeding, but it was largely to no avail. Yale stormed back and netted three-consecutive tallies to cut the margin to 9-7, but the basketball game on ice finally ended and BC was headed to the Frozen Four.

So, three of the Tournament’s top seeds advanced to Ford Field in Detroit and the other spot was filled by a Cinderella team – RIT. Denver’s failure to advance was somewhat puzzling, as the Pioneers featured college hockey’s best goaltender and largely the country’s best overall talent. However, Denver's struggles in the Tourney continue for a third-straight season and only one WCHA team is left standing.

Hype week concludes this week, and it’s down to business starting on April 8, as Wisconsin faces RIT and Miami plays Boston College. A full preview will appear next weekend.

However, I’ll give you a quick hint: Rico Blasi.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mazzocco's Firing Simply Disgraceful

Fox Sports North announced Friday that the contract of longtime Gopher hockey TV play-by-play man Frank Mazzocco was not going to be renewed for the upcoming season, ending his nearly 20-season tie with the team.

Mazzocco had worked in the FSN booth with former Gopher coach Doug Woog for the past several seasons, and FSN announced that Woog's role would be different next season. Mazzocco will be replaced by Anthony LaPanta in the booth for next season.

LaPanta has received some exposure doing high school hockey games on FSN and called games on the radio for the State High School Hockey Tournament. He is also the lead studio announcer for FSN's Twins, Gophers, Wild, and Timberwolves coverage, and may be familiar to some fans as one of the Twins radio announcers in the 1998 season. He'll likely do a fine job in the both.

Woog served as the team's head coach for 14 seasons and has been a popular broadcaster since leaving the bench prior to the 1999-2000 season. He has slipped somewhat over the past few years, but his homespun observations have been much appreciated by Gopher fans over the years. Nobody cares more about this program than the "Wooger." 

Moving Woog to more of a studio role leaves the opportunity for others like Darby Hendrickson, Tom Chorske, and Kevin Gorg to move into the #2 slot in the booth. Former NHLer Derek Plante also had some exposure in March and would be a decent possibility. Each of the named individuals would be fine alongside LaPanta, except Gorg, whose incessant talking seemingly makes him a decent candidate for a studio spot.

All this is well and good, but the firing of Mazzocco is a horrible decision by the suits of FSN. Minnesota hockey fans know "Francois's" style very well from his days as a North Stars' announcer in the mid-80s, and his subsequent seamless transition to Gopher hockey. He is anything but a homer and makes honest evaluations of the team while clearly wanting the team to do well. He is an energetic announcer, but clearly lets the game stand on its own. It's a style perfected by the great hockey announcers of modern times like Mike "Doc" Emrick, Dave Strader, the late, great, Tom Mees, and the incomparable Al Shaver. I recently ranted about the hysterical hockey announcers of the modern times and how their histrionics would not work in this market. Mazzocco personified what an effective hockey announcer is like in his area.

This is going to backfire huge on FSN. The comments section of the StarTribune article is littered with negative comments about the move. There is a Facebook page set up to lobby for his return to the booth. Don't hold your breath, however. This decision is made.

Mazzocco is far too talented to not be working next season. I could easily see him on the ESPNU broadcasts for the NCAA Tournament next spring. This blogger would love to see Francois working with another FSN castaway, Clay Matvick, to provide some quality broadcasts. Also, with the Big Ten Network likely to make a bigger splash in the WCHA, he would be a perfect addition to the staff. We'll see Frank again; just not on Gopher broadcasts for a while.

FSN has clearly made a decision without consulting the most important people, and that is the fans of Gopher hockey broadcasts on FSN North. If management had asked us, they would have found out that the fans love the coverage, would wish that Wooger would seem more lucid at times, and would be looking forward to new gadgets to add to the already fine broadcasts. Most importantly, they would have requested FSN leave the booth as-is. Instead, management has decided to bring in a new announcing team and will likely see its quality suffer.

FSN North GM Mike Dimond (pictured left) stated that he wants a revamping of the Gopher broadcasts and he has certainly invited some backlash among the faithful by replacing not one but two popular announcers in one fell swoop. Not a good move in my book, and this has certainly been met with a lot of disdain from fans across the state.

While Dimond is in the mood for firing folks, why not address the awful Wild broadcasts with Dan Terhaar and Mike Greenlay? They can certainly go. I've also been highly critical of Twins' announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven (I'm fine with Bert in a role, but Bremer needs to go and Roy Smalley absolutely needs to be in the booth full-time).

Clearly, the replacement of the Gopher announcers is a short-sighted, knee-jerk, management decision which hurts the fans the most. Then again, what's new?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

About Ness....

I am a New York Islanders' fan, as I have mentioned many times prior, and I really enjoy reading the Point Blank site of Chris Botta which covers the team independently. However, this post appearing last Friday about the apparent departure of defenseman Aaron Ness struck me as somewhat odd and utterly wrong.

The article suggests that Ness wanted to turn pro if the Isles wanted him and that he needed to get away from the U program in order not to hamper his development. The post was denied by Ness's father that evening and it appears Ness will stay with the Gophers.

Ness has been a disappointment in Minnesota. As a sophomore, he netted just 2-10-12 in 39 games, coming off a 2-13-15 freshman season. A big scorer in high school, Ness has looked tentative throughout his career at the U and seems gun-shy when needing to pull the trigger from the point. Arguments can be made that Ness has stalled under coach Don Lucia, but the truth is that Ness came in struggling and hasn't changed much at all.

He's a bit undersized for a defenseman at 5-10 and 170 lbs. and his future is as a finesse-type guy. The Isles took him in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft, one season after the Kyle Okposo fiasco.

Everyone remembers the Islanders signing Okposo midway through the 2007-08 season. The Gophers were struggling somewhat and Okposo was in a bit of a funk. After teaming up with linemate Ryan Stoa to score 19-21-40 as a freshman, Okposo was off to a 7-4-11 start in 18 games during the season in which he left. Stoa was hurt in the team's opening game and Okposo's scoring chances were fewer. Islanders' GM Garth Snow signed the player mid-season and then ripped Lucia for stalling Okposo's development. Of course, Snow then turned around and took Ness the very next draft, showing just how big a problem Lucia was for Snow. (Sidebar, Botta talks a lot about Okposo being the Islanders' next captain, which I find interesting, given that he completely bailed on his team mid-season once before).

Now, Ness's development may have been stalled under Lucia. I wrote in a previous post that the Gophers should seriously consider bringing in a new assistant coach to work exclusively with defensemen and/or the defensive zone game (I tossed out Mike Guentzel's name specifically). However, maybe the Islanders over-rated Ness from the get-go? Is it possible? Definitely.

Botta's comment about the Gopher program being in "shambles" is a bit hyperbolic as well. Yes, the team missed the Final Five this season and finished seventh in the league, but this was the first time the team hadn't advanced to the Final Five since 1998 and just the second time in 34 seasons that they haven't passed the first round of the playoffs. They were hit by injuries last season (Jay Barriball mainly; Taylor Matson to a much lesser extent) and were hampered by inconsistency. Yes, Jordan Schroeder left for the NHL, but he was a first round pick for chrissakes, and this stuff happens. That is hardly the personification of a program in shambles.

As I wrote before, next season will be a make-or-break season for coach Lucia at the 'U.' Many Gopher supporters would probably like to see him gone right now. I choose to preach patience for a guy who has won over 60% of his games here and has two National Championship banners hanging from the Mariucci Arena rafters. I wrote earlier that I expected Ness to potentially leave anyway, and if the Islanders choose to "save him" by sending him to Bridgeport, CT, then so be it. They own his rights, so it's their (and Ness's) call. However, Ness's development will be far faster and better in the WCHA, which I have argued is the second-best league in the world in terms of intensity of competition. That Lucia counsels players against the long bus rides in minor league hockey is simply stating reality. The money is obviously much better in the professional ranks, but one rides buses for a while before the bright lights shine. And, it's not like the prospects on Long Island are very bright, either. Snow's team made the playoffs in his first season as GM (2006-07), but has missed each year since. The Isles finished with the fourth-fewest points in the league one season after that and had the fewest in the entire NHL last season. This year, the stand tied for 27th out of 30 NHL teams. Obviously, Snow has assembled quite the juggernaut on Long Island.  Add to that the craziest owner in the NHL (Charles Wang), the worst building in the NHL (Nassau Coliseum), and an unsettled situation surrounding their long-term whereabouts, and everything comes up Milhouse with the Islanders.

As I said earlier, Aaron Ness may indeed decide to start his pro career next season and forego his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility. That's his decision, but it is clear that he needs further seasoning. Let's hope he (or Chris Botta or Garth Snow) does not take any cheap shots on his way out the door should be decide to leave early. The hit piece courtesy of Islanders Point Blank on the Gopher program was simply misguided and misses the likelihood that Ness's development wouldn't be any faster in the AHL than it is in the WCHA. For further evidence to this point, see Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, Keith Ballard, and Alex Gologoski; defensemen all coached by Lucia at the University of Minnesota.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gopher Hoops' Season Ends in Familiar Fashion

The Gopher basketball team saw its season end against Xavier on Friday in the NCAA Tournament in a familiar form as many other losses during the 2009-10 season. The team looked strong early on but ultimately struggled shooting the basketball in losing 65-54 in first round action.

Minnesota shot just 31% from the floor for the game, including an anemic 7-26 from three-point territory. The Musketeers didn't shoot much better (34% for the game), but shot 56% from the floor in the second half, compared to just 26% for the Gophers. 

Senior Lawrence Westbrook led the team in scoring with 19 points in his final game in maroon and gold, but he only achieved four points in the second half. He was the only Gopher to reach double-figures for the game. Paul Carter grabbed a team-leading nine boards for the Gophers, who were out-rebounded by Xavier 50-41 for the game.

So, in a season marked by inconsistency, the Gophers could not follow-up its inspiring run in the Big Ten Tournament with any post-season victories, meaning the drought continues. Minnesota has not won an "official" NCAA Tournament game since 1990, since the wins of the 1997 Final Four team were wiped from the official NCAA records. The Gophers finished 21-14 on the season, which was viewed by many as being optimistic from the outset. However, off-court issues marred this club, and they struggled for an identity in Big Ten play. Still, coach Tubby Smith did lead his team to the big dance for the second-consecutive season, the first time that has happened since Clem Haskins's tenure. Despite the good play in the Big Ten Tourney, Gopher fans have to be disappointed with the ending to this season and wonder what would have happened if Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe would have played at all this season.

Of course, "what if" questions are becoming commonplace in the athletics department at the University of Minnesota.....

BTW - I'm not doing an official post-mortem of the Gopher season, since I believe I have done this on many different occasions down the stretch when things started taking a turn for the worst. Please check in here for continued coverage of the NCAA Tournament - hockey, that is.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

NCAA Field Set; WCHA Leads Way

The NCAA Hockey Tournament field was unveiled Sunday morning, and the WCHA leads the way once again, placing four teams in the field of 16. Of the four teams, two (Denver and Wisconsin) qualified for #1 seeds, and the other two (North Dakota and St. Cloud State) captured #2 seeds.

The bracket is here, but here is the breakdown by region:

East (Friday/Saturday in Albany, NY):
  • #1 Denver vs. #4 RIT
  • #2 Cornell vs. #3 New Hampshire
West (Friday/Saturday in St. Paul, MN):
  • #1 Wisconsin vs. #4 Vermont
  • #2 St. Cloud State vs. #3 Northern Michigan
Midwest (Saturday/Sunday in Ft. Wayne, IN):
  • #1 Miami vs. #4 Alabama-Huntsville
  • #2 Bemidji State vs. #3 Michigan
Northeast (Saturday/Sunday in Worcester, MA):
  • #1 Boston College vs. #4 Alaska
  • #2 North Dakota vs. #3 Yale
There are some pretty good matchups in this field. I believe all of the 2/3 games could be very good, and I am especially intrigued by the Wisconsin/Vermont matchup in St. Paul. If this year is anything like last year's craziness, it should be quite a tournament.

Stay tuned to DP for analysis leading up to Friday's face-offs.

UND Captures Broadmoor

The North Dakota Fighting Sioux became the second team in WCHA history to win the Broadmoor Trophy from the play-in game spot on Saturday night, defeating St. Cloud State 5-3 to win the WCHA Tournament. The Siouxies won three games in three days and joined UMD as the only two teams to accomplish this feat. The Bulldogs did the deed last season.

UND survived two SCSU goals in the game's first minute to take a 4-2 lead into the third period before St. Cloud's David Eddy lit the lamp for his second goal midway through the third. Although St. Cloud controlled play for much of the third period, Matt Frattin's empty-netter sealed the fate and gave UND the tournament crown.

North Dakota put itself in a good spot to snag a #1 seed with the victory, but Boston College's win in the Hockey East tourney gave the Eagles the final #1 seed.

The Final Five lacked much intensity all weekend, mostly because Minnesota wasn't there. It's amazing how attendance fluctuates depending on the Gophers' fate, isn't it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Huskies, Sioux Advance

It will be St. Cloud State and North Dakota playing for the WCHA Tournament Championship Saturday night in St. Paul. The Huskies defeated Wisconsin in the afternoon game, and UND beat Denver in the nightcap.

The winner of the game seemingly will make a strong case for a #1 seed in next weekend's tournament. The most current PairWise shows some tightening at the top, and the UMD Bulldogs look to be on the outside looking in after their loss to North Dakota Thursday night.

We'll find out on Sunday how it will all shake out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Non-Gopher Final Five Preview

After a few days of really drawing out the North Dakota faithful (thanks for reading, folks), we turn our attention to the WCHA Final Five getting underway Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. This year's version will not have the presence of the University of Minnesota Gophers for the first time since 1998. However, the five teams heading to St. Paul pose some very solid matchups for college hockey fans.

The only team playing for its NCAA Tournament life would seem to be UMD, who faces off against North Dakota in the play-in game Thursday night. The Bulldogs are tied for 11th in the most recent PairWise rankings. However, remember that Alabama-Huntsville has already secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the CHA Tournament, meaning that only the top 15 will qualify for the post-season based on the PairWise. Put another way, teams should really strive to finish in the top 10 to guard against upsets, and UMD is squarely on the bubble.

The other four participants, Denver (#1), Wisconsin (#3), North Dakota (#4t), and St. Cloud State (#4t) are seemingly safe.

That doesn't mean the hockey won't be good this weekend in St. Paul. The play-in game is one of the better opening night matchups in recent memory, and both semi-finals on Friday promise to be solid. Let's take a look at the two games we know will be played:

#5 UMD vs. #4 North Dakota - Both teams survived three-game series in last weekend's opening round, with the Bulldogs disptaching Colorado College and North Dakota taking care of Minnesota. The two teams met for two series this season, with the Siouxies winning three of four matchups. The 'Dogs are fighting for their tournament lives, but this year's version does not feature a goaltender named Alex Stalock. Still, UMD has plenty of firepower with Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, Justin Fontaine, and Rob Bordson. Are the Sioux going to be able to stop the high-scoring 'Dogs? If they can stay out of the box, UND has a good chance. However, it may come down to who is most desperate in this one.
#3 St. Cloud State vs. #2 Wisconsin - The Huskies had to work overtime in their opening round series against Minnesota State. After dropping the first game in overtime, the Huskies rallied to take game two and then won the series with an overtime besting of the Mavericks. The Badgers, on the other hand, throttled Alaska-Anchorage in Madison. The Badgers are hot right now and seem to be scoring at will. The Huskies have struggled as of late and really had to battle last weekend in the first round playoffs. St. Cloud has a #1 Tournament seed on the line and should definitely bring a solid effort.
Denver is the tournament's top seed, the MacNaughton Cup champion, and #1 seed in the PairWise. They feature the nation's best goaltender (Marc Cheverie), the best coach (George Gwozdecky), and are loaded with talent. They are the favorite to win the tournament in my book.

The Pioneers swept North Dakota 4-0 during the regular season and split two games with UMD. No matter who the Pios play at 2pm on Friday, they will win.
Hope you enjoy the hockey action this weekend! By the way, DP went 5-0 last weekend in his picks and even correctly predicted the number of games each team needed to take the series. Looks like I'm on a roll!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gopher Hockey Post-Mortem

Season Summary:
  • Overall Record – 18-19-2
  • Regular Season Record – 17-17-2
  • Post-Season Record – 1-2 (Lost at North Dakota in WCHA first round playoffs)
  • WCHA Record – 12-14-2
  • WCHA Finish – Seventh
  • Home Record – 10-8-1
  • Away Record – 8-10-1
  • Neutral Site Record – 0-1-0
  • Leading Scorers – Tony Lucia (11-17-28); Jordan Schroeder (9-19-28)
  • Leading Goaltender – Alex Kangas (16-15-1; .911 Save %; 2.61 GAA; 1 Shutout)
  • Team Statistics
Season Recap:

Sky-high expectations seemed reasonable for a Gopher squad which returned virtually its entire team from a season prior and added a first round (Nick Leddy) and second round (Zach Budish) NHL draft picks to its lineup. All told, the Gopher roster contained 20 NHL draft picks, highlighted by three first-rounders. The goaltending tandem was solid and experienced and the team was poised for a bounceback following a disappointing 2008-09 fifth place finish.

Instead, the season fell apart really in the opening game of the season up in Grand Forks against North Dakota. The Gophers were barraged by the Sioux 4-0, and had goaltender Alex Kangas not stood on his head all night long, it could have been far worse. Minnesota battled back for a 3-3 tie the next night, and then proceeded to be shut out in consecutive games at home courtesy of Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie. This had not occurred since the 1930s, and it kind of set a tone for things to come. When it was all said and done, the Gophers would find themselves shut out six times, would never be more than one game over the .500 mark, and finish a very disappointing seventh in the WCHA. After a first game embarrassment in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at North Dakota, the Gophers fought hard to win game two and were competitive in the decisive third game, but ran out of gas and saw their season end by not qualifying for the Final Five for the first time since 1998. Until this season, the Gophers had gotten by the first round of the playoffs 31 years out of the last 32, with 1998 being the only hiccup along the way.

Save for a solid stretch from November 28 through January 16, which saw the Gophers go 8-2-1, the 2009-10 would have been an unmitigated disaster. The team struggled with consistency all season long. Injuries to forwards Jay Barriball (5 games played before season-ending knee surgery) and Taylor Matson (19 games played prior to an ankle injury) thinned the core up front. The departure of defenseman Sam Lofquist did not help matters either. Frustrated by a lack of ice time, Lofquist left the program for the Ontario Hockey League, and left a thin defensive core already without freshman Nick Leddy (broken jaw caused him to miss six weeks) with a shortage of healthy bodies and forced walk-on Brian Schack into action. The team struggled to score goals all season long but the real struggles came in the defensive zone. Simply put, the team wasn’t good enough night in and night out.

Team Grades:

Forwards (C) – Senior Tony Lucia tied for the team lead in total points (28), sharing the title with talented sophomore Jordan Schroeder. Mike Hoeffel led the team in goals with 14, but struggled with consistency. The Gophers received a much-needed shot in the arm from transfer Jacob Cepis, who added 19 points in his 21 games played and created many other opportunities when he was on the ice. Apart from Lucia and Hoeffel, no Gophers reached double-figures in goals. On far too many nights, Lucia and Cepis were the only ones bring solid effort.

Defensemen (D) – This was the team’s Achilles heel all season long. The Gophers struggled in the defensive zone. Costly turnovers hurt the team, and they were prevalent early and often. The play of senior David Fischer actually improved late in the season, but he certainly did not look like an NHL first-rounder throughout his career in the maroon and gold. Sophomore Aaron Ness seemed to regress late in the season. Leddy was solid as a freshman but passed up many an offensive opportunity. Cade Fairchild (4-17-21) came on strong at the end, but was a bit of a disappointment after a fine sophomore campaign.

Goaltenders (B+) – Kangas was good all season long. His numbers improved across the board from his disappointing sophomore campaign. He received little help from the team’s defensive core, and it seemed like a majority of the goals were scored against him with three feet of the net. The Gophers needed a bounceback season from Kangas this year, and he did his part. Sophomore Kent Patterson was promised more playing time this season, but still found action in only 8 games. At times, it would have been nice to see him get a start here and there, but the coaching staff elected to ride Kangas throughout the season.

Newcomers (B-) – Leddy was solid as a freshman, and Budish (7-10-17) showed flashes of what he should be able to provide in the future. Remember, he did not play hockey during his senior season in high school due to injuries. The other freshmen, Josh Birkholz and Seth Helgeson, were ok in their first seasons, but lacked consistency, as one would expect from newcomers.

Coaching (C)Don Lucia and his staff took a lot of heat this season from a disappointed booster organization and an all-too-happy-to-oblige media. The team stagnated as the season progressed, but did play reasonably well down the stretch. Still, failing to show up for the first game of the playoffs was inexcusable. Lucia read his team the riot act, and they responded with solid efforts the next two nights. However, play in the defensive zone has been brutal the last two seasons and suggests a problem. Lucia should consider adding an additional coach to work with the defensemen to address this issue. You know, someone like Mike Guentzel.

Flight Risks:

Schroeder's as good as gone (UPDATE: He's gone). The Vancouver Canucks’ first-round pick last season was reported to be wavering about turning pro before this season, but stayed in school. The Canucks will make a strong effort to sign him.

Ness is a NY Islanders' pick but still needs more seasoning. GM Garth Snow has said the right things about his development after the Kyle Okposo fiasco a few years ago when Okposo quit on his team mid-season, but the smart money is on the youngster to continue his development at the U of M.

There were whispers about Leddy maybe considering the junior route as well, and there were issues with his development (if the StarTribune and Wild Assistant GM Tom Thompson are to be believed) after his trade to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks have a ton of WCHA-developed players on their roster and in their system, and I don’t seem them pushing Leddy to either turn pro or go to juniors. My guess is that he comes back.

Key Losses:

The senior class was large compared to past seasons. Tony Lucia will be missed. David Fischer’s experience will be missed, but his play will not. Forwards Mike Carman and Ryan Flynn had very disappointing senior years. Brian Schack was pressed into duty during his final year and acquitted himself quite well. The team will miss his unsung leadership.

Key Additions:

The incoming freshman class is large and decorated. It includes:

  • 2009-10 Minnesota Mr. Hockey forward Nick Bjugstad of Blaine
  • Minnetonka forward Max Gardiner, who compiled 55 points for the start runners-up
  • Big defenseman Mark Alt of Cretin-Derham Hall, who passed up a football opportunity at Iowa to play hockey at the U
  • Forwards Seth Ambroz, Nate Condon, Erik Haula, and Tom Serratore of the USHL
  • Defensemen Nate Schmidt of the USHL and Jake Parenteau of the NAHL
  • Forwards Jared Larson and Jake Youso of the NAHL
The eleven players listed above will provide depth to the Gopher roster and give the team some insurance in the event of injury. Also, remember that Barriball petitioned for an medical redshirt and will return for his senior season next year, and the team will be able to add a healthy Matson to the lineup. Of the group, Bjugstad, Gardiner, and Alt can be expected to be solid contributors immediately. The last time Lucia brought in such a large class was only two seasons ago, and three players are no longer with the program: Lofquist, Michael Dorr, and Grant Scott.

2010-11 Outlook:

The 2009-10 season was nothing but an unmitigated disappointment for the Gophers. It started out poorly in Grand Forks and ended up there as well in equally disappointing fashion. Nobody expected to be writing a post-mortem of the Gopher season BEFORE the NCAA Tournament, but that’s what happened.

So, 2010-11 will be a huge season for the fans of the maroon and gold. After three-consecutive subpar campaigns, the Gopher will be under pressure to compete next season. The heat will be on the coaching staff next year, and the public may turn on them at the first sign of mediocrity. This is a program which deserves not to accept mediocrity as a standard. Simply qualifying for the Final Five is not acceptable; it is expected.

Now, the team next year should be very good. Although it loses Lucia and likely Schroeder up front, offensive firepower still is available. Forwards like Cepis, Nick Larson, Jake Hansen, Hoeffel, and Budish will be expected to ratchet up their games next season. Gardiner and Bjugstad should score a fair amount as freshmen.

The key will be in the defensive zone. Assuming Ness and Leddy return, they will be counted upon to provide leadership and solid defensive zone play. Fairchild will be expected to get the team’s anemic power play back on track, and newcomers Alt and Schmidt will be regular contributors to the team’s top six defensemen. Kangas will need to do the same in the nets. Hopefully, the defense will give him some help.

Lucia deserves another season behind the bench. Calls for his dismissal were a bit premature. A coaching change only makes sense if the replacement is better than what is currently in place, and there is nobody who is available and better equipped to coach this program than Lucia. However, adding a defensive-minded coach will help in this area. However, if we’re writing a similar column at the end of next season, it’s possible we’ll also be discussing the merits of a new coach.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gophers' Season Ends in GF

The season ended for the Gophers up in Grand Forks Sunday night as North Dakota brutalized the Gophers 4-1 to take the best-of-three game series and advance to the Final Five, as they have done each year since 2003. The Gophers, on the other hand, will stay at home during the Final Five for the first time since losing to UMD in March of 1998.

Jason Gregoire's goal with just over three minutes remaining in the second period broke a 1-1 tie and gave the Siouxies a lead they would never relinquish. The third period showed how drained the Gophers were after being battered by UND all night long. The Sioux salted the game away with two tallies in the third and out-shot Minny 29-19 for the game.

With the Gophers buried in the PairWise rankings, there was no chance of them making the NCAA Tournament absent a run in the Final Five. That meant they had to get past North Dakota in the first round, and it was just not in the cards.

Give the Fighting Sioux credit for setting a physical tone in this one. They out-shot the Gophers 13-2 in the opening period and established a physical presence. Minnesota was beaten up throughout the game and simply ran short of energy in the end.

What follows in the next few paragraphs may be construed as sour grapes by some. However, I must say that I have a bit of a bug up my ass about dirty play and high hits in hockey. Sunday's game featured plenty of these in the second period alone and one hit in particular really stuck in my craw.

In the second period, UND's frequent legal offender Matt Frattin attempted to put Gopher defenseman Kevin Wehrs through the boards with a viscous hit to the head, resulting in a major penalty. Shockingly, two things occurred immediately thereafter:
  • The North Dakota fans gave Frattin a standing ovation as he left the ice for the penalty box as Wehrs lay somewhat motionless on the ice and were visibly happy with the cheap shot. That was predictable.
  • The officials called Frattin for a major penalty for contact to the head but did not eject him from the game. That is simply inexcusable. If ever there were an attempt to injure, that was it. The refs blew this one big-time.
Minutes later, Brad Malone hit Minny defenseman Nick Leddy with a late knee to the thigh which staggered Leddy. No penalty was whistled. The Gopher defenseman had released the puck seconds before the contact. I know players are instructed to finish their checks, but that was ridiculous. Later in the stanza, Ben Blood bull-charged the Gopher net, collided with Alex Kangas, and knocked his mask off. Kangas responded with a shot to the face, and guess who received the only penalty called on the play? That's right - Kangas! The Sioux scored the go-ahead goal seconds after the power play ended but before the Gopher player serving the penalty, Josh Birkholz, could join the play in the long-change period zone. Absolute. Putrid. Officiating.

The UND fans showed their true class in the wake of the Frattin hit. It was disgusting to say the least. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of hockey knows that those types of hits - leading with the head or elbow and leaving your feet to do so - are verboten in the game. Still, these idiots cheered like it was free grinder night in the Forks.

Of course, Frattin figured prominently in the outcome of the game, scoring the one which salted it away. That he shouldn't have even been in the game after his hit on Wehrs is academic.

There will be plenty of time for a post-mortem of a monumentally disappointing Gopher season, and mine will appear after next weekend's Final Five. However, this one leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Elsewhere Around the League:
WCHA Final Five Matchups:
  • Thursday Night: UMD vs.North Dakota
  • Friday: UMD/North Dakota vs. Denver; St. Cloud State vs. Wisconsin 

Sunday, March 14, 2010


#11 seed in the West regional and will play Butler Xavier in Milwaukee next Friday. A matchup against Pittsburgh looms should they advance. One has to think a good contingent of Gopher fans will follow the team to Milwaukee next week.

Plenty of analysis will follow, but Gopher Nation breathes a collective sigh of relief.....

And Now We Wait......

The Gophers ran out of gas in the second half Sunday afternoon. Ohio State shot a torrid 65+ percent from the floor in the second half to open up a game which was only a three point deficit at the half. The Buckeyes scored at will in the game's final 10 minutes and beat the Gophers 90-61 in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. Evan Turner had 31 points and 12 rebounds in the game for the Bucks, who won the tourney title after splitting the regular season title three ways.

The Gophers shot just 41% from the floor for the game and committed 16 turnovers. They hit the wall in the second half and were out-scored by OSU 57-31 in the game's final 20 minutes. Lawrence Westbrook (17 points) and Devoe Joseph (14 points) were the only Gophers to hit double digits.

Ohio State embarrassed the Gophers down the stretch and coach Thad Matta kept his five starters in the game until only two minutes remained. The Bucks kept raining threes until the end, and the Gophers had no answer nor demonstrated any ability to stop the barrage. OSU is a thin six-man team outside of Turner (whom I hope the Wolves are able to snag this upcoming draft) which, in my opinion, will lose in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  

The Gophers finished 21-13 on the season and must await the selection committee's decision on whether or not their performance in the Big Ten Tournament was enough to qualify for the big dance. As I posted earlier, I believe they should be in even before the blowout loss to Ohio State. Of course, the Gopher game was the final game before the final selections are to be made, so getting blown off the court is the last thing in the collective mind of the committee. Still, the resume contains wins against top-30 RPI squads like Butler, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan State, and that should carry the day.

We will await the committee's decision at 5pm central daylight time.

Gopher Day Underway......

The basketball squad is in action right now. The intelligentsia on CBS is split on the Gophers' NCAA Tournament worthiness. I think they should be in regardless of outcome today. Bubble team Mississippi State played Kentucky very tough in a losing cause, which may stick with some of the selection committee members. My money is that Illinois is toast, but the Gophers are in. Of course, they should just win today and remove all doubt.

The hockey team is in action in a few hours, and their case is much simpler: They must win and keep winning to be able to have a fighting chance. Anyway, forcing a third game in Grand Forks is more than I expected 24 hours ago.

We'll be back probably later tonight with the results of the tournament selection committee. Also, with three decisive third games in the WCHA first round playoffs, it should be a busy night to kick off a fun and busy week ahead.

Go Gophers!

Gophers Will Fight Another Day

The Gopher hockey team rebounded from one of its worst performances in recent memory with a great effort Saturday night and forced a decisive third game in the best-of-three WCHA first round playoffs, beating North Dakota 4-2 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Seth Helgeson's first collegiate goal and point came just seconds after Jacob Cepis's game-tying power play tally in the third period to give the Gophers a lead they would not relinquish.

Alex Kangas made 41 saves in a victorious effort, one night after being pulled after allowing four goals in two periods.  

Minnesota's effort was exponentially better Saturday than the putrid performance Friday. Their good effort was rewarded midway through the first period when Mike Hoeffel scored on the power play to give Minny a lead. UND freshman Corban Knight scored off a faceoff in the second period to tie the score, and the game stayed that way until the third.

Matt Frattin scored midway through the frame to give UND a lead and wake up the Engelstad crowd who could sense a sweep. However, Ben Blood went to the box just 30 seconds after the Frattin goal on a tripping call, and Cepis tied the score. Less than a minute later, Helgeson tossed the puck toward the net, and goaltender Brad Eidsness misplayed it and it went behind him for the Gopher lead. Jordan Schroeder scored into an empty net to cap the scoring, and the Gophers live to fight another day.

Sunday night's game is for all the marbles for the Gophers. UND has the NCAA Tournament seemingly made win or lose Sunday night, but Minnesota needs to win and keep winning to keep its hopes alive. With efforts like Saturday night, they should have a chance Sunday night. However, UND has been in this situation before, being forced to go a full three games in the first round six times since 1999 and won the series each time (HT to Jeff Atkins for his tremendous research). The Ralph crowd will be hostile, but the Gophers were able to neutralize it most of the night on Saturday. Plus, the Gophers proved they could get to Eidsness. After the Cepis goal, Minnesota put on relentless pressure the balance of the game, out-skating the Sioux and winning the puck battles. They need to channel that intensity all night Sunday. Finally, the Gophers need to take care of the defensive zone. Although they still allowed too many shots Saturday night, the Gophers played much better in the defensive end and escaped with a win.

It should be fun as Gopher fans have one more chance to have a reason to cheer at the Final Five next weekend in St. Paul.

Elsewhere Around the League:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Gophers To Play For Big Ten Tourney Title

The Gophers played their finest game of the season in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday, throttling #6 Purdue 69-42 in a game which didn't even seem that close. With three wins in three days, the Gophers qualified for the title game of the tournament for the first time in school history and may have cemented their bid for the NCAA Tournament.

The Gophers scored the game's first seven points and then turned a 9-4 lead into a 26-4 margin as the Boilermakers were held scoreless for an incredible 11:26. The halftime score of 37-11 reflected total domination by the Gophers, who held Purdue to an ice-cold 18% shooting percentage at the half, while shooting nearly 60% on their own. The Gophers cooled in the second half, but the Boilermakers never got any closer than 18 points.

Ralph Sampson III led the Gophers with 13 points. Colton Iverson continued his solid play in the Big Ten Tourney with 11 points off the bench, and Devoe Joseph added 10 points of his own. Purdue couldn't get anything going all day long, shooting 2-14 from three-point land, and emptying its bench midway through the second half.

So, the Gophers will now face Ohio State for the tournament championship Sunday afternoon. The two teams split games this season with each winning in convincing fashion on its home court. The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but Ohio State's ticket is already punched. One has to believe the Gophers punched their own ticket as well with the victory on Saturday. The win gave them 21 victories on the season, and added a quality win to an already impressive resume which includes victories over Butler, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan State. That should be enough to get in, but we'll have to see what the selection committee has to say on Sunday evening. ESPN's barcketologist Joe Lunardi had the Gophers as the "first team out" Saturday morning prior to the win against Purdue, so their case was only helped by the victory. A loss to Ohio State on Sunday should not damper the chances.

The prediction here is that the Gophers are in at a 12 or 13 seed. A Big Ten Tournament championship would be a nice cap to a great weekend of basketball for Tubby Smith's team, which has struggled for consistency all season long. They sure picked a nice time to get its act together, however. 

Gophers Don't Show Up in Grand Forks

The Gopher hockey team was embarrassed Friday night in Grand Forks, losing to North Dakota 6-0 in first round WCHA playoff action. UND's Danny Kristo scored 1:39 into the game to launch the Siouxies into a period which would see them out-shoot Minnesota 12-4 and take a 3-0 lead on the scoreboard.

Multiple law offender Matt Frattin lit the lamp twice for UND and goaltender Brad Eidsness turned aside all 27 Gopher shots for his second shutout of the season against Minny.

There was nothing - repeat, nothing - redeeming about the Gophers' effort on Friday night. The team came out flat from the opening drop and played that way throughout. The Sioux out-hustled, out-moved, out-skated, and out-scored the Gophers all night long. The problem area for Minnesota all season long - defensive zone turnovers - cost the team dearly Friday night. Goaltender Alex Kangas was not at the top of his game, but was defenseless on many different occasions Friday. The Gophers played like a team which had the luxury of being able to drop a game in the playoffs instead of a squad fighting for its NCAA Tournament life.

It's surprising (shocking, really) that the Gophers came out this flat in a playoff game in which the team absolutely needs to win the Final Five in order to qualify for the NCAAs. Getting to the Final Five is impossible if the team loses in the first round, which the Gophers are now in danger of doing for the first time since 1998. Hopefully, the effort will be there Saturday, as the Gophers now need a two game sweep of UND to keep its post-season hopes alive.

Elsewhere in the playoffs:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hoopsters Score Great Win, Live to Fight Another Day

The Gopher basketball team's quest to stay out of the NIT continued Friday night as it played one of its better games of a frustrating up-and-down season in defeating Michigan State 72-67 in overtime in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

Devoe Joseph rebounded from a scoreless first half to end the game with 17 points. Blake Hoffarber had 14 points, highlighted by 4-9 three-point shooting, and Colton Iverson had 12 points off the bench. The Gophers shot a pedestrian 39% from the floor, but held State to 41% and forced 14 turnovers. The Gophs even withstood a MSU 7-0 run at the end of regulation to force OT. In a game reminiscent of the teams' earlier matchup in Minneapolis, the Gophers got the better of this one, thanks to some clutch OT play from Joseph and Lawrence Westbrook.

The Gophers now have 20 victories on the season and will face second-seeded Purdue in the semifinals Saturday afternoon. Whether or not the victory over Michigan State is enough to catapult the Gophers into the NCAA Tournament is debatable. The team's resume is getting stronger with every victory. The team has reached 20 victories on the season and now features solid victories against Butler, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, and now Michigan State. Each of those teams would likely qualify for the big dance if it started today. However, two losses to Michigan will hurt this team, as well as the inability to close out sure victories at home against Michigan State and Purdue during the regular season. If but one of those losses would have turned around, the Gophers would already be in.

My bet is that the Gophers need to beat Purdue to get in. I do not feel like they need to win the Big Ten Tourney to get an invite. A victory over a top-five team like Purdue should be enough.

Purdue is beatable and they struggled to hold off Northwestern in their quarterfinal matchup on Friday. The Gophers have proven they can play with the Boilers this season and Purdue is definitely hurting without guard Robbie Hummel. If the Gophers want to erase some of the disappointment of an inconsistent season, they need to defeat the Boilermakers on Saturday.

Remember, this is where most observers thought this team should have been all season long.

Gophers Face Uphill Battle in Grand Forks

#7 Minnesota at #4 North Dakota – College hockey fans would have thought last summer that this playoff preview would end up being written in a WCHA Final Five championship game format, or even an NCAA Tournament matchup. Instead, it is a first round playoff matchup between two teams which struggled with lofty pre-season expectations. In Minnesota’s case, the team seemingly did not recover from a putrid start – which began with a 4-0 drubbing by the Sioux at Ralph Engelstad Arena – and could not find consistency all season long. For the Sioux, the team went on its customary late-season charge, but could climb no higher than fourth in the standings.

Despite the disappointing locations in the standings, the Gophers and Sioux are at polar opposite positions in NCAA Tournament consideration. The Sioux are solidly in the top ten of the PairWise and have climbed to a tie for firth place overall. This weekend’s series means nothing in terms of getting into the final 16, but will go a ways in determining whether or not the Sioux can snare a top-four position and a regional top seed. For the Gophers, this weekend is just the beginning of a run the team needs to go on just to get consideration. Realistically, the Gophers need to run the table in the WCHA playoffs – both first round and the Final Five. Barring upsets elsewhere and a huge assumption that they were able to get past UND this weekend, they’ll have to win five games in eight days.

The Gophers do not match up particularly well with the Sioux. The issue all season long for Minny has been play in their own zone. The Sioux’s high energy style and attacking forecheck should pose many problems for the Gophers. Couple that with a game in a hostile building in front of a bevy of fans who detest the M&G, then this weekend should pose plenty of issues.

However, the Fighting Sioux is not invincible. The team is on a six-game winning streak but has struggled somewhat in doing so. The Gophers also split the season series against UND, going 1-1-2 in the four games between the two teams. The Minnesota victory was perhaps the Gophers’ best performance all season long, and it came one night after the Gophers out-played UND in a tie game. Gopher goaltender Alex Kangas has played well against UND all season long (the 4-0 season-opening game should have been 10-0 had Kangas not kept it somewhat respectable), but he’ll need to stand on his head this series.

The Gophers and Sioux should play each other very tough. There is no excuse for Minnesota to come out flat for any game this series. Their season is on the line with each start. The effort in both games against Wisconsin last weekend was solid, and they’ll need that and more this weekend in Grand Forks.

This is the matchup Gopher fans have dreaded all season long. Grand Forks seems to do weird things to the Gophers. However, they have won up there in the past, and if they want to keep playing hockey in 2009-10, they’ll need to win twice this weekend.

UND Roster, Stats, Schedule
UM Roster, Stats, Schedule
Donny Puck Prediction: UND Wins in a three-game series

Thursday, March 11, 2010

WCHA Round One Previews

The most exciting four weeks in college hockey get under way this weekend with the WCHA's first round playoffs. All ten teams will face off against one another in reverse order for best-of-three series.

In order to prepare for this weekend, we'll look at four matchups today and save the Minnesota/North Dakota preview for Friday.

#10 Michigan Tech at #1 Denver – The supremely-talented Pioneers raced to the top of the league’s standings this season and won the MacNaughton Cup in convincing fashion, finishing five points ahead of Wisconsin. They scored the second-most goals and allowed the second-fewest tallies in league play. Goaltender Marc Cheverie (.937 Sv%; 1.97 GAA; 6 shutouts) is among the nation’s best, and forwards Rhett Rakhshani (20-28-48) and Tyler Ruegsegger (16-23-39) will lead the offense. The Huskies, on the other hand, suffered through yet another last-place finish, accumulating only eight points in 28 games. This series is a mismatch in every stretch of the imagination and the Pios should score early and often against the Huskies. MTU goaltender Kevin Genoe (.904 Sv%) has been solid this season, but Tech gives up far too many shots on goal and Denver should be able to buzz around all night long.

The teams met for two games in Denver in February with the Pioneers winning both contests.

DU Roster, Stats, and Schedule
MTU Roster, Stats, and Schedule
Donny Puck Prediction: Denver Sweep

#9 Alaska-Anchorage at #2 Wisconsin – The Badgers have undergone an offensive explosion in the second half of the season. Sconnie has notched 109 goals in 28 games of WCHA play. Before last weekend’s series at Minnesota, the Badgers had scored 17 goals in three games, including putting a seven-spot in normally stingy St. Cloud State. Wisconsin has five players who notched double-figures in goals, including the WCHA’s leading goal-scorer Blake Geoffrion (21-16-37). The team features three 40-point getters – Michael Davies (15-30-45), Derek Stepan (8-33-41), and Brendan Smith (15-25-40). Goaltender Scott Gudmandson (.910 Sv%; 2.41 GAA; 14-3-4 record) has been a revelation for Wisconsin this season. On the UAA side, the team played reasonably well in the month of January, going 4-3-1 against Denver, Michigan Tech, Colorado College, and Minnesota, but a five-game losing streak in February cooked a promising season. Kevin Clark (23-14-37) turned in a nice offensive season, but defense and goaltending has been suspect for UAA all season long. The Badgers’ high-energy attack should be a big mismatch for the Seawolves.

The two teams met for one series in Madison back in November with the Badgers winning both games convincingly.

UW Roster, Stats, and Schedule
UAA Roster, Stats, and Schedule
Donny Puck Prediction: Wisconsin Sweep

#8 Minnesota State at #3 St. Cloud State – The Huskies forced a rematch of last weekend’s series with the Mavericks when they held on for a tie last Saturday night. Cloud rode a nine-game winning streak in the month of January toward the top of the national rankings, but a 1-3-1 finish over the final three weekends of regular season play knocked them down a bit. Still, in a season expected to be one of transition following the departure of two-year starting goaltender Jase Weslosky, St. Cloud has surprised many. The turnaround started in goal, where both Dan Dunn (.914 Sv%; 2.57 GAA) and Mike Lee (.914 Sv%; 2.81 GAA) have been solid on the season. Ryan Lasch (18-22-40), Garrett Roe (16-23-39), and Tony Mosey (11-20-31) have been productive up front for SCSU. For Minnesota State, it has been a tough season. The team has struggled to find a consistent goaltender following the graduation of long-time starter Mike Zacharias, and the team has used three goaltenders semi-regularly all season. The Mavs have struggled to score goals all season long, notching just 75 in 28 WCHA games, third-lowest among the ten teams. Freshman Phil Cook will likely get the nod in goal in the playoffs and the Mavericks will play St. Cloud very hard. This is a matchup which is not overly favorable to St. Cloud State, but they should have enough firepower in the end.

The two teams met for two games last weekend – the only seriesof the season – and Minnesota State won at home on Friday and tied up in St. Cloud on Saturday.

SCSU Roster, Stats, and Schedule
MSU Roster, Stats, and Schedule
Donny Puck Prediction: St. Cloud State wins in three games

#6 Colorado College at #5 UMD – Inconsistency has plagued the Bulldogs all season long. UMD features one of the most potent forward corps of any collegiate team, yet has struggled to score goals elsewhere. The foursome of Jack Connolly (18-27-45), Justin Fontaine (21-21-42), Rob Bordson (9-28-37), and Mike Connolly (11-25-36) is as formidable as any combo in the country. Sophomore goaltenders Kenny Reiter (.908 Sv%; 2.45 GAA) and Brady Hjelle (.898 Sv%; 2.85 GAA) have been solid all season long. However, UMD has not played very well in the months of February and March, going 3-5-0 down the stretch. Colorado College has struggled mightily after a very strong start. As 2009 turned to 2010, the Tigers stood at a surprising 12-5-3 (8-3-3 in the WCHA) despite losing star goaltender Richard Bachman. However, CC went 6-10-0 down the stretch to finish 18-15-3 and drop out of the PairWise consideration. Freshman goaltender Joe Howe was solid this season but seemed to tire as the year went on. Still, he finished with a .908 Sv% in his debut season. The Tigers and Bulldogs desperately need victories to make a NCAA Tournament run, so this series should be a good matchup.

The two teams met for two series this season with UMD holding a 3-1-0 edge. The lone CC victory came in Colorado Springs.

UMD Roster, Stats, Schedule
CC Roster, Stats, Schedule
Donny Puck Prediction: UMD wins in a three game series

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

WCHA Standings - How'd I Do?

Back in September, while I was still writing for the publication, I ventured to predict what was going to happen in the regular season and even offered up my final picks. Now, I'm no Jimmy "The Greek" or Pete Axthelm, but I'd like to think I get one right once in a while. Here's how I saw the league shaping up last October:
  1. Denver
  2. Minnesota
  3. North Dakota
  4. Wisconsin
  5. UMD
  6. St. Cloud State
  7. Colorado College
  8. Alaska-Anchorage
  9. Minnesota State
  10. Michigan Tech
Now, here's what actually occurred, followed in parentheses by the difference between reality and my prognostications:
  1. Denver (N/C)
  2. Wisconsin (+2)
  3. St. Cloud State (+3)
  4. North Dakota (-1)
  5. UMD (N/C)
  6. Colorado College (+1)
  7. Minnesota (-5)
  8. Minnesota State (+1)
  9. Alaska-Anchorage (-1)
  10. Michigan Tech (N/C)
Gee, I wonder what looks to be the outlier here.

I cannot believe I'm too far off in being wrong, especially about Minnesota. Only the most fervent Gopher-haters would have predicted the team would have finished seventh in the league this season despite returning 20 NHL draft picks including three first-rounders. Also, I think St. Cloud State and Wisconsin surprised some out there. Many believed the Huskies would have trouble replacing departed goaltender Jase Weslosky and few could have foretold Wisconsin's offensive explosion in the second half. Other than that, the league sort of fell into expected territory.

The playoffs start this weekend and the WCHA has four teams solidly in the PairWise's top ten:
  • Denver (1)
  • Wisconsin (3)
  • North Dakota (5 - how?)
  • St. Cloud State (7t)
There is little which could happen this weekend to bump any of these teams out of the top ten and they should all secure NCAA Tournament berths in two weeks. That means for the other six teams are fighting for their tournament lives this weekend, running into next week's WCHA Final Five. UMD is on the bubble at #15, Colorado College needs to go on a run at #21, and the Gophers need to run the table over the next two weeks due to their #23 ranking. With teams having everything for which to play, the WCHA playoffs should be very exciting this week.

Programming Note: DP will have playoff previews coming later in the week for the four series not involving the Gophers and will have the UND/Minnesota preview on Friday. Predictions will abound! 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gopher Hoopsters Close Out Regular Season With Victory

The Gophers saved perhaps their best effort for last Sunday. Against a pitiful Iowa team, the Gophers shot 59% from the floor and held the Hawkeyes to just 53 points in an 88-53 victory on Senior Day at Williams Arena. The Gophers finished the regular season 9-9 in the Big Ten and 18-12 overall.

Seniors Lawrence Westbrook (20 points) and Damian Johnson (10 points, 11 assists) led the way Sunday and sophomore Devoe Joseph added 17 points on 6-7 shooting. Colton Iverson and Blake Hoffarber each had nine points as the Gophers completely manhandled Iowa. At one point in the first half, the Gophers went on a 21-2 run to blow the Hawks away.

With a sixth place finish, the Gophs will tip off against Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament this Thursday in Indianapolis. Obviously, given the events of last week and the loss to Michigan, the Gophers need to win multiple games in the Big Ten Tourney to give the NCAA selection committee something to think about. Playing one more game against Penn State - a team they should handle - will give the team another conference victory in their march toward the magical 20 win mark. The bad news is that should the Gophers win on Thursday, they would face third-seeded Michigan State on Friday, which is certainly not a favorable matchup for the Gophers. However, this team needs victories and will likely need at least two to have any sort of chance at the big dance.

The Gophers played themselves into their current predicament. It will be interesting to see which Gopher team shows up next weekend in Indianapolis.

Note on Donny Puck Coverage This Week: The dark period for BP Baseball will likely continue this week as the focus is on the Gophers' winter sports teams in their conference playoffs. We'll have full recaps of the Gopher hoops' game on Thursday, and any further games beyond. We'll check back in on selection Sunday next weekend to see if Tubby's boys found their way into the tourney. If not, the post-mortem on this disappointing season will appear after the team is eliminated from the NIT. Should the Gophers make the NIT, we'll cover it like any other game and pretend it's as interesting as the NCAA Tournament.

On the ice, we'll cover the likely carnage of the first round playoffs in Grand Forks. We'll also cover the Final Five next weekend should the Gophers qualify or not. DP will have coverage of the NCAA Tournament until its conclusion on Easter Sunday in Detroit.