Friday, January 15, 2010

Three Up, Four Down For Gopher Puck

The Gopher hockey squad begins a stretch Friday night in which they will play seven conference series over the following eight weeks. Six of those series are against teams ahead of them not only in the league standings but in the all-important PairWise rankings. The seventh series is a road trip to Anchorage, Alaska - hardly a gimme.

To say it is crunch time for the Gophers is an understatement. Minnesota made its initial appearance in the PairWise this week at #25. Since the PairWise mirrors the NCAA Tournament, the Gophers' appearance is encouraging, although the team needed a 6-1-0 stretch just to break into the top 25. However, the team realistically needs to finish in the 10-12 range in order to receive an NCAA Tournament bid. Therefore, the Gophers' two options are to either win the WCHA Final Five tournament or go on a serious second half run.

If a run is in the cards, it must start this weekend at home against North Dakota. UND will likely be without three key players due to injuries: Senior defenseman Chay Genoway (concussion), sophomore forward Brett Hextall (lower body), and freshman forward Corban Knight (lower body). Still, the Siouxies are notorious for second half runs, and started 2010 with a home sweep against Minnesota State last weekend. Plus, the Sioux pounded Minnesota up in Grand Forks earlier in the season, which should give the Gophers all the motivation they need.

So, to set the stage for this weekend, let's look at three positives and three negatives of the Gopher team at the season's midpoint.

  1. Jacob Cepis; The junior transfer (pictured right) from Bowling Green joined the Gophers for the Dodge Holiday Classic and has provided a much-needed shot in the arm. In four games, Cepis has managed 2-1-3 and has provided tremendous energy. Best yet, the Gophers are 3-1-0 since his arrival. Coach Don Lucia plans to have Cepis playing on Jordan Schroeder's line for the time being, but his initial line in the DHC with Mike Hoeffel and Mike Carman seemed to really create a buzz. For a team lacking in scoring right now, Cepis's arrival came at the right time.
  2. Goaltending: Junior Alex Kangas has been solid the majority of the season. Despite posting some scary numbers early on, mostly due to defensive mishaps, Kangas has righted the ship. In 17 games, he has posted a 2.59 goals against average to go with a save percentage of .910. Sophomore Kent Patterson has won his last two starts and his numbers are also good (2.57 GAA.918 Sv%). Coach Lucia's mantra is to have his goaltenders play to a 90% save percentage in order to give his team a chance to win on a given night. The goalies have done their part.
  3. Momentum?: The Gophers have won seven of their past nine games and six of their last seven. Here's hoping that momentum carries forward in the toughest part of their schedule. 
  1. Goal-Scoring: This has been perhaps the biggest disappointment in a lackluster start to the 2009-10 season. The Gophers are averaging 2.64 goals per game, good for 40th in the nation. There are 58 teams playing Division I hockey, and only Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech rank behind Minnesota among WCHA teams. With a solid and experienced senior class, goal-scoring was not expected to be a problem with this team. However, the Gophers started out slowly and then lost Jay Barriball to season-ending knee surgery early on, and it seems like the team has never recovered. Only Mike Hoeffel has managed double-digits in goals through 22 games and the next-closest teammates have managed just five (Tony Lucia, Patrick White, and Jake Hansen). Scoring from the blueline has been virtually non-existent, which leads us into our second point.....
  2. Defensive Point Production: With such puck-moving defensemen as Cade Fairchild, Aaron Ness, and Nick Leddy, it was expected that the Gophers would be able to generate a ton of points from the blueline. However, Fairchild has started relatively slow (1-9-10 in 22 games), Ness has struggled (1-5-6), and Leddy missed several weeks with a broken jaw. Junior Kevin Wehrs is the only defenseman who has notched more than one goal on the season, and the team's struggles on the power play (15.7% overall; 11.5% in WCHA play) suggest that the lack of defensive production leads directly to unacceptable power play figures.
  3. Home Record: This is just puzzling. The Gophers have won three of their last four at home, but still have only a 6-7-0 mark at Mariucci Arena this season. In conference play, Minnesota's home record is just 2-5-0. This is an area which must improve.
  4. Power Play: The 15.7% overall mark is maddening, but the 11.5% success rate in WCHA play is simply unacceptable. The WCHA mark ranks ahead of only Alaska-Anchorage among WCHA teams. With the scoring talent Minnesota has on its roster, these figures should be much, much higher.
So there you have it. The Gophers have a lot of ground to make up over the regular season's final eight weekends. I'm not sure this team has a run in it, but I've been wrong before, and hopefully am wrong about this team. One thing is certain; few have figured out the 2009-10 Gophers, who have battled inconsistency all season long.

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