Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gophers Lose; Will Open Playoffs on the Road

One night after playing inspired hockey in a 3-2 victory over UMD, the Gopher hockey team sleepwalked its way through a 3-0 loss to the Bulldogs, assuring they will open the first round of the WCHA playoffs on the road.

Justin Fontaine scored twice for the 'Dogs and Brady Hjelle picked up his first collegiate shutout, which was also UMD's first of a Gopher team since 1980.

Minny just didn't have it Saturday night. The intensity wasn't there. The team hit two posts in the first period, and Hjelle stopped three Gopher breakaways in the game. It just wasn't meant to be for the Gophers in this one.

With North Dakota's victory over Colorado College, the Gophers are assured of playing on the road in the playoffs. However, they can finish no lower than seventh place and still have a shot at sixth place. More importantly, the team has two games next weekend at home against red-hot Wisconsin. The Badgers are ranked high in the PairWise, and any victory against the Badgers will help the Gophers' prospects for an NCAA Tournament berth. At this point, however, that seems unlikely without the team winning the Final Five tournament.

To say next weekend is a critical series for the Gophers would be an understatement. Of course, it's looking far more likely that this team will need to run the table in the playoffs to get a tournament bid, regardless of what happens against Wisconsin next weekend.

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gopher Hoops Wins, But......

The Gopher basketball team had a 19-point lead over Illinois with 7:30 remaining in the game Saturday afternoon. The Illini were ice-cold from the floor and the Gophers were playing one of their best games of the season. However, Illinois went on a 28-8 run over the next six minutes to cut the lead to one point with one minute remaining. Damian Johnson made a critical steal of the ball, leading to a perfect pass from Ralph Sampson III to Paul Carter, and the Gophers were able to escape with the victory 62-60.

Devoe Joseph had 16 points to lead Minnesota, which won at Champaign for the first time since 1996. Carter and Lawrence Westbrook each added 10 points.

The Gophers are now 17-11 on the season and an even 8-8 in Big Ten play. If the Big Ten Tournament started today, Minny would finish sixth and play Penn State in the first round. Finishing in the top five in regular season play means not having to play on Thursday (i.e., a first round bye). With two games remaining in the regular season (vs. Michigan and Iowa), the Gophers' win on Saturday meant they still have a shot at finishing in the top five. Of course, the other side of that equation is that the Gophers desperately need wins, and being able to play on Thursday against a team it should beat will only add to the win total. However, nobody has won the Big Ten Tournament from the play-in slot, and the Gophers are getting into territory where they need to win the tournament - or at least get to the title game - in order to get an invitation to the big dance.

Saturday's game was a microcosm of the season: good stretches and a disturbing trend of letting other teams back into games. This time, the Gophers closed the victory out; against Purdue last Wednesday, they didn't. This season will still be deemed a disappointment unless the team is able to run off 4-5 consecutive wins over the next two weeks.

Of course, taking away the five losses either in OT or by one point means this season would look much different than it currently does, no?

Big Win for Gopher Pucks

The Gopher hockey team just won't go away.

Despite facing an uphill battle for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and an NCAA Tournament bid seeming like a pipe dream, the U finds itself on a three-game winning streak after defeating UMD Friday night 3-2 at the DECC in Duluth.

Despite being out-shot 34-24 by the 'Dogs and allowing UMD to hit on two of five power play opportunities, the U held on for the victory, thanks to some timely goaltending by Alex Kangas. The junior turned aside 32 shots and seemed to see the puck well all night long.

Nick Larson's goal midway through the first period gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead, which they held throughout the first frame and just about all of the second. However, after a terrible goaltender interference call against Mike Carman put UMD on the power play, David Grun scored with just three seconds remaining in the period to give the Bulldogs a tie and some momentum going into the third.

Duluth native Cade Fairchild scored nine minutes into the third to put the Gophers back on top, but UMD's Travis Oleksuk tied things up just over a minute later with a power play tally. However, Jacob Cepis's goal with just over five minutes remaining sealed the deal for the Gophers and gave the team a nice road victory.

Minny played well Friday night, despite allowing the two power play goals and going 0-4 on their own power plays, including a five-minute advantage in the second period. The U held the high-scoring tandem of Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly, Justin Fontaine, and Rob Bordson to just two assists in the game. They withstood the pressure, battled adversity, and scored a good victory.

The second game in the series is Saturday night, and a quick look at the standings shows the Gophers just one point back of sixth-place Colorado College and three points behind fifth-place North Dakota. The bad news there is those two teams play each other Saturday night, meaning the Gophers will not be able to gain ground on both of them. Still, the victory helps the PairWise, although these rankings show the Gophers still have a long way to go.

The past two weekends have shown that the Gophers are capable of beating good teams in the WCHA and tease fans somewhat into seeing what this team should have been playing like all season long. A victory on Saturday night will do much for this team's confidence going into the regular season's final weekend.

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

USA, Canada to Meet for the Gold

The US Olympic hockey team throttled Finland on Friday afternoon 6-1 to give itself a spot in Sunday's gold medal game in Vancouver. The opposition in that game will be provided by a familiar foe.Canada held off Slovakia 3-2 later that day to take the other spot in the game. Sunday's matchup will be a rematch of last Sunday's contest which saw the US beat Canada 5-3 and set off alarm bells throughout the Dominion. The Canucks have now won three consecutive games to right the ship.

In the US game on Friday, the barrage started early with Ryan Malone's (St. Cloud State U., Tampa Bay Lightning) goal just over two minutes into the game. By the 13 minute mark of the opening frame, the US had received additional goals from Zach Parise (U. of North Dakota, New Jersey Devils), Erik Johnson (U. of Minnesota, St. Louis Blues), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Kane again, and Paul Stastny (U. of Denver, Colorado Avalanche). By the time it was all said and done, the US led a stunned Finnish squad 6-0 and cruised to the victory thereon.

Ryan Miller (Michigan State U., Buffalo Sabres) didn't have to work too hard and stopped all 18 shots he faced. Tim Thomas (Boston Bruins) played the third period for his first Olympic action and allowed one goal on seven shots.

The US team moved to 5-0 in the tournament and has lost some of the underdog edge. With the elimination of Russia and Sweden, arguably two of the tourney's favorites, the US's medal expectations increased rapidly, and the team played games against Switzerland and Finland with the swagger and confidence of a favorite. Still, they will be heavy underdogs on Sunday night against Canada.

The pressure on Canada to win on Sunday will be immense. They were expected to be in this game and have stumbled many times in the tournament thus far. Still, all will be forgotten with a gold medal. To do so on home ice will cause the expectations for the Canucks to be sky-high.

This is a good spot for the US to be in. Although the #1 seed in the medal round, the US coaches can play up the "nobody expects us to win" moniker for Sunday's game, and the Yanks can certainly play like there is nothing to lose. A silver medal will be a fine result for a squad which was not expected to do much in the Olympics. Still, the Americans have played five very good games in this tournament and will have to ask Miller to potentially stand on his head one more time. He hasn't had to do so since the Canada game last Sunday, so hopefully he's up to the task. The hope will be that Canada will grip the sticks a bit too tight, and one thinks that if the US can withstand the game's first ten minutes, the advantage should swing its way.

This is the matchup the Canadians have wanted since last Sunday. The Americans have a great opportunity to absolutely ruin the Canadian Olympics Sunday night, and let's hope they're up to the task.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gopher Hockey: Scenario Time

Two weeks remain in the WCHA regular season and the race for home ice in the first round playoffs is intense. Given the decline of eastern teams, the WCHA currently holds three of the top four places of the current PairWise rankings, which determine the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Five WCHA teams appear in the top 16 - corresponding to the number of teams in the tournament, with Colorado College just on the outside at #17. The Gophers check in at #24, meaning that they'll have to make a run to have a shot at the tournament.

This means the final two weeks will be all about jockeying for position for those top three teams (Denver, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State), holding on for dear life (North Dakota, UMD), breaking back into the top 16 (Colorado College), making a run (Minnesota), and winning the Final Five (Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State, Michigan Tech). Either way, it should be a fun two weeks.

This is the time of year where we cease looking at national polls and focus on conference standings and the PairWise. For those new to this site, the PairWise is a computerized ranking system used to mirror the NCAA Tournament. The 16-team tourney has six automatic bids (one for each of the league champions of Atlantic Hockey, CCHA, CHA, ECAC, Hockey East, and the WCHA) and ten at-large bids. Given the automatic bids for the conferences, a good rule of thumb is that the PairWise will mirror the actual tournament for the top 12 or 13 teams, allowing for upsets in the conference tournaments and automatic bid winners not in the top 16 of the PairWise. This week's major conference leaders are listed below, complete with their current PairWise rankings:
  • Atlantic Hockey: RIT (N/A)
  • CCHA: Miami (2)
  • CHA: Bemidji State (4-tie)
  • ECAC: Yale (6)
  • Hockey East: New Hampshire (9)
  • WCHA: Denver (1)
Everything you wanted to know about the PairWise is here.

The current WCHA standings are listed here, and the following details the individual teams' remaining schedules:
  • Denver (36 points) - Wins the MacNaughton Cup with a sweep this weekend; Can finish no lower than fourth; Remaining games (4): at Minnesota State, home-and-home vs. Colorado College
  • St. Cloud State (33 points) - Can finish anywhere from first to sixth; At a disadvantage in that it has only one series remaining and does not play this weekend; Remaining games (2): at Minnesota State
  • Wisconsin (31 points) - Hottest team in the WCHA right now; Can win the WCHA if Denver stumbles, but can also finish anywhere from first through sixth; Remaining games (4): at Michigan Tech, at Minnesota
  • UMD (29 points) - Desperate right now to stay in the PairWise top 12; Remote chance to win the WCHA if everyone else stumbles, but could also possibly drop to seventh; Remaining games (4): vs. Minnesota, at Alaska-Anchorage
  • North Dakota (25 points) - Righted the ship last weekend at home against UMD, and has now followed up three consecutive losses with three consecutive wins; Cannot finish first but could still tie for second; Remaining games (4): at Colorado College, vs. Michigan Tech
  • Colorado College (25 points) - This weekend's series with UND is crucial for the sinking Tigers who have gone 3-7 in their last 10 WCHA games; Like North Dakota, CC cannot finish first, can tie for second, and could finish as low as eighth; Remaining games (4): vs. North Dakota, home-and-home vs. Denver
  • Minnesota (22 points) - Can finish as high as fourth and as low as eighth; Any victory over UMD or Wisconsin the last two weekends will improve the PairWise; Remaining games (4): at UMD, vs. Wisconsin
  • Alaska-Anchorage (18 points) - Only one conference series remaining means Seawolves are have an outside shot at finishing seventh, but could still finish ninth; Remaining games (2): vs. UMD (also has a non-conference series with Alaska)
  • Minnesota State (17 points) - Can still finish sixth, but the schedule is brutal the last two weekends; Only bright spot is that both series are at home; Remaining games (4): vs. Denver, vs. St. Cloud State
  • Michigan Tech (8 points) - Locked into a tenth-place finish; Remaining games (4): vs. Wisconsin, at North Dakota
The Gophers still could break through should they sweep their remaining four conference games, win the first round of the WCHA playoffs, and win a few games in the Final Five conference tournament. However, it is unlikely this will be able to be accomplished, given the strength of the schedule. Stranger things have happened, none more stranger than UMD's classic run last season where the Bulldogs won the Final Five from the play-in spot, winning three games in three days and advancing to the NCAA Regional finals. It's too early to give up on the Gophers just yet.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Once Again, Gopher Hoops Cannot Close

The Gopher basketball team was presented with a golden opportunity to pick up a signature win on Wednesday night at home against #3 Purdue. The Gophs held a nine-point lead with just under 10 minutes remaining, but Purdue ended up walking away with the victory, 59-58

After a lackluster first half which saw the Gophers shoot 29% and trail the Boilermakers by seven points, Minnesota came out with a vengeance in the second half, scoring the half's first 12 points and gaining the lead and the momentum. With Purdue star Robbie Hummel on the bench with a leg injury, the Boilers' prospects did not look good. Add to that, Ralph Sampson III was in the midst of a career game and the Gophers looked like they may blow Purdue out of the gym.

However, Purdue rallied to pull within one point and got a stop of Minnesota with less than a minute remaining with Colton Iverson's put-back was out-of-control. The Boilers rushed the floor on a fast break and scored the lay-up to give them a one-point lead with 40 seconds left. Minny set its offense and Lawrence Westbrook could not pass up a good look, draining a 14-footer to put the Gophers back on top with 25 seconds remaining. However, Keaton Grant hit from 19 feet with 8 seconds left to give Purdue a 59-58 lead.

After a Gopher time out (called by coach Tubby Smith a fraction of a second before Devoe Joseph drained a jumper, of course), the Gophers ran a play for Joseph, but his side jumper was too strong, and Damian Johnson's put back - although good - did not count because it came after the final buzzer, and the Boilermakers escaped. Editorial note - Joseph is good, but why did Westbrook not get the last look? He has a history of draining big shots. Better yet, why did they call time out before the final play? They way things are going, the coaches should have just let the play go on without a time out - and I'm not saying that because Joseph ended up draining the shot after Smith's time out signal.

Oh, the Gophers had plenty of chances, including:
  • Sampson's career night (21 points, 7 rebounds)
  • Purdue went nearly 10 scoreless minutes, spanning the final 4:48 of the first half and 5:30 of the second half
  • During that time, the Gophers out-scored Purdue 19-0
  • With Hummel on the bench, Purdue's jump-shooting was severely curtailed
However, like the Michigan State game earlier this season, which saw the Gophers kick away a 13-point lead in the second half, Minnesota came up short, and severely damaged its flickering NCAA Tournament hopes.

The Gophers are 16-11 and 7-8 in Big Ten play. A signature win over Purdue would have helped immensely for a team running out of games. Now, the team heads to Illinois to play the Illini on Saturday afternoon and closes out the season with a road game at Michigan and a home game against Iowa. Gone are the chances for a signature regular season victory and the pressure mounts for the team to be forced to win the Big Ten Tournament to have a shot at the big dance.

The Gophers should have been able to close things out on Wednesday and now their NCAA Tournament hopes are on life support - if they weren't already.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

USA Hockey Gains Berth in Semis

The march continues for the US Olympic hockey team after its 2-0 win over Switzerland on Wednesday, assuring the team of a berth in the Vancouver Games' semifinals.

Zach Parise (U. of North Dakota, New Jersey Devils) scored just over two minutes into the third period to finally solve Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks) and give the Yanks a lead they would not relinquish.  Parise scored the game's other goal into an empty net with 12 seconds remaining to seal the victory.

Ryan Miller (Michigan State, Buffalo Sabres) wasn't particularly busy, but did turn aside all 19 Swiss shots to record the shutout. Team USA improves to 4-0 in Olympic play.

I had written earlier in the day that the Swiss would prove a formidable challenge for Team USA and Wednesday proved that. Hiller stood on his head throughout, beaten only once in 43 attempts. The US dominated play but could not solve a hot goaltender until the third period. In a single-elimination format, hot goaltenders can wreak havoc on teams with superior talent. For a good example of this, look no further than Miller's performance against Canada last Sunday night. Reaching further back into history, Jim Craig stood on his head against the Soviets in 1980 and we've been talking about the Miracle on Ice for 30 years now. Still, the US won the game despite it being way too close for comfort (copyright, Ted Knight) for many of the US faithful. It wasn't nearly as sexy as beating Canada, but the Americans did what they needed to do to stay alive.

Next up for the US is a date with the winner of Wednesday night's tilt between Finland and the Czech Republic. The winner will face the USA on Friday afternoon in Vancouver. (Thursday Morning Update: Finland beat the Czechs 2-0 and will face the US on Friday; Canada crushed Russia and Slovakia knocked out Sweden Wednesday night, meaning the final four contains the US, Canada, Finland, and Slovakia). The US needs one more victory to gain a medal. Just what color that medal will be remains to be seen.

USA Olympic Hockey Team to Play Swiss Wednesday

By virtue of Switzerland's 3-2 shootout win over Belarus Tuesday, the US will now face the Swiss on Wednesday afternoon in the quarterfinal game in the Vancouver Olympics. The US defeated Switzerland 3-1 in the first game of the preliminary round last Tuesday.

Canada drilled Germany 8-2 to gain the quarterfinals against Russia Wednesday. The Czechs and Slovaks each won one-goal games over Latvia and Norway, respectively, to round out the field of eight. The other teams in the final eight are Finland and Sweden.

The Swiss played the US tough and scared the hell out of Canada two days later, forcing the Canucks to a shootout. They're tough and goaltender Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks) is playing very well in the nets. This is no gimme game for the Yanks, but don't expect them to relax in this one.

The US game is at 2pm Wednesday and we'll likely have a recap Wednesday evening. Should the US advance, the semifinals are on Friday.

Monday, February 22, 2010

USA Hockey Stuns Canada; Grabs #1 Overall Seed

The US Olympic hockey team scored a surprising 5-3 victory over Canada on Sunday night, capping round robin play with a 3-0 record and grabbing the #1 overall seed in this week's medal round.

Defenseman Brian Rafalski (U. of Wisconsin, Detroit Red Wings) scored the Americans' first two goals and assisted on another. Fellow defender Ryan Suter (U. of Wisconsin, Nashville Predators) set up two goals. However, the story was Ryan Miller (Michigan State, Buffalo Sabres). The goaltender kicked away 42 of 45 shots to record his third win of the tournament. He was clearly the star of the game.

The US silenced the raucous crowd with Rafalski's first goal just :41 into the game to give the Americans an early lead. Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes) tied the score, but then Rafalski found the back of the net again to give the US a 2-1 lead after the first period.

Dany Heatley (U. of Wisconsin, San Jose Sharks) tied the score at 2 with a rebound goal 3:32 into the second period and the score stayed that way for the next 13 minutes. However, Chris Drury (Boston U, New York Rangers), found the back of the net to give the US a lead it would not relinquish.

Team captain Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey Devils) stunned the Vancouver crowd with a power play tally just over seven minutes into the third frame to give the US a 4-2 lead. Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) made things interesting with his nifty goal with 3:09 remaining in the game, but the US's Ryan Kesler (Toronto Maple Leafs) scored into an open net to create the final margin of victory.

Miller was absolutely fantastic in the game, completely dominating play and out-playing Martin Brodeur (New Jersey Devils) on the other end.

I had written previously that the only chance the US had at an Olympic medal was if Miller stood on his head in a big game, and he certainly did so on Sunday. In the single-elimination medal round, he'll likely have to do the same a few more times, but proved to everyone on Sunday that he was capable of doing so.

With the top seed in the medal round, the US will get a bye and will face the winner of Tuesday's Switzerland/Belarus play-in game on Wednesday afternoon. Canada dug themselves into a huge hole with the loss on Sunday. The Canucks now have to play on Tuesday against Germany for the right to move on in the medal round, and face a matchup with third-seeded Russia should they win their play-in game. Pressure is intense on the Canadians, who barely survived against Switzerland earlier in the week, winning in a shootout.

The US has surprised many with its play in the first three games of the Vancouver Olympics. As much as the words "miracle" and "biggest win since 1980" will be uttered over the next few days, keep in mind that this team has won absolutely nothing yet an still faces an uphill battle to medal, given the strengths of the teams still alive. However, with its victory on Sunday, the US proved that the young team is talented enough to beat the best in the world and is a dangerous team heading into the medal round.

Gopher Cagers Keep Hopes Alive

After a crushing previous week which saw them lose winnable games to Michigan and Northwestern, the Gopher basketball team rebounded with impressive victories over ranked Wisconsin and league bottom-feeder Indiana. With an 81-56 victory over the Hoosiers at Williams Arena on Saturday night, the Gophers capped a 2-0 week and moved to 16-10 overall and 7-7 in Big Ten play.

Seniors Lawrence Westbrook (20 points) and Damian Johnson (16 points, 10 rebounds) led the way as Minny avenged a crushing OT loss to Indiana in January. Ralph Sampson III added 11 points, and all eleven Gophers scored, including little-used Bryant Allen, who notched a three-point basket for his first points as a collegian.

Minnesota shot 55% from the floor for the game and limited themselves to 11 turnovers for the game. Their pressure defense helped hold Indiana to 32% shooting for the game, including an ice-cold 28% in the first half, which saw the Gophers build a 19-point lead. One game after holding Wisconsin to 31% shooting, Indiana shot 32%. It's much easier to win games when the other team shoots poorly, but give the Gophers' defense some due credit.

The Gophers won the rebounding advantage 40-32, but Indiana grabbed 15 offensive boards to the Gophers' ten. This must improve in the league's final four games.

The Gophers face a critical week ahead with tests at home against Purdue on Wednesday night and at Illinois on Saturday. Purdue was ranked #4 this past week and the Illini are one of the teams ahead of Minny in the standings. Right now, the Gophers would finish sixth in the Big Ten, meaning they would be forced to play on Thursday in the conference tournament. For a team which will likely need to win one or two games in the Big Ten Tournament to have a shot at an NCAA Tourney bid, the Gophers desperately want to stay out of the Thursday games and winning one or two of the games this week will help that cause. Winning two games will put them on the right side of .500 and give the NCAA selection committee something to think about.

It's refreshing to see the Gophers play two solid games on the heels of two of their most disappointing losses, but this team still has a long way to go to grab an NCAA bid.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Much-Needed Sweep For Gopher Six

The Gopher hockey team will not go down for the count quite yet.

Facing a second-division finish squarely in the face prior to this weekend, the Gophers responded with somewhat inspired hockey and swept the seventh-ranked Colorado College Tigers, capping the weekend with a 7-4 victory on Saturday.

Nick Leddy had a goal and two assists for Minnesota on Saturday, Josh Birkholz had a goal and an assist, and Jordan Schroeder and Jacob Cepis set up two goals apiece for the maroon and gold, who received four goals from defensemen.

A first period offensive explosion saw goals by Mike Hoeffel, David Fischer, CC's Rylan Schwartz, and Aaron Ness all with a span of 1:42 of the period, and the Gophers carried a 3-1 lead into the dressing room, and the Tigers looked like a team which had not yet found its legs for a second-straight night.

Birkholz's goal 2:53 into the second period gave the Gophers a three-goal cushion, but the Tigers' Kris Friedheim cut into the deficit with a power play tally after a steady parade of Gopher penalties midway through the second period. However, Leddy found the back of the net with 2:12 remaining in the period to give the Gophers another three-goal lead.

Gabe Guentzel and Tyler Johnson each scored within 3:46 into the third period as CC cut the lead to one goal and carried a lot of momentum. However, Cade Fairchild's and Tony Lucia's tallies late in the period gave the Gophers the victory and an absolutely vital series sweep.

Alex Kangas was not particularly sharp in goal, but he did pick up the victory with 22 saves.

The sweep was Minny's first in the conference since it beat Michigan Tech on December 11-12 and the first conference sweep at home since defeating Alaska-Anchorage in late October. The victories also put the Gophers back into the WCHA first round playoffs home ice picture, as the Gophers trail fifth place Colorado College and North Dakota each by three points.

With four games remaining in the season, crunch time is upon us, and Minny heads up to now-struggling UMD to play a series at the DECC next weekend. The Dogs have lost three of four and were hammered this past weekend at North Dakota and have dropped all the way to 12th place in the PairWise rankings. It is a series the Bulldogs need just as badly as the Gophers. Of course, last weekend's series was vital for CC as well, and the Gophers responded well, providing some hope in a series which has seen precious little.

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gopher Pucksters Get Crucial Victory

The Gopher hockey team absolutely needed a win Friday night and received one with an impressive 3-0 victory over visiting Colorado College. Junior goaltender Alex Kangas stopped all 26 CC shots, including 13 in the third period, to record his first career shutout.

Minnesota controlled the play throughout and fired 35 shots at the Colorado College net. They seemed to go unrewarded after a fine first period until Patrick White's goal with 0:00.3 remaining gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead. The game remained the same through two periods, despite Minnesota holding a 26-13 edge in shots on net, and despite CC enjoying two 5-3 power play situations to that point.

In the third, Jordan Schroeder scored 1:38 into the frame to put the game farther out of reach. Josh Birkholz's tally at 11:36 sealed the deal; all that was left was waiting to see if Kangas would get the shutout.

 CC's Joe Howe kept the game from being a laugher with 32 saves.

The win came at a great time for the Gophers, who moved two points ahead of Alaska-Anchorage and moved within five points of fifth-place CC for the final WCHA playoffs' first round home ice spot. It makes one wonder if the Gophers had beaten UAA in the finale in Anchorage a few weeks ago, no?

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

Friday, February 19, 2010

USA Hockey 2-0; Canada Next

The US Olympic hockey team made it two-for-two Thursday afternoon with a resounding 6-1 victory over Norway to move to 2-0 in the round robin format.

As was the case in the 3-1 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday, the US struck early on Thursday, as Phil Kessel (U. of Minnesota, Toronto Maple Leafs) scored just 2:39 into the game. Chris Drury (Boston U., New York Rangers) made it 2-0 just over ten minutes later to give the US a two-goal lead heading into the first intermission.

The Americans struck just once in the second with Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) converting. In the third period, the US broke open a 3-1 game with three tallies to close things out, as Ryan Malone (St. Cloud State U., Tampa Bay Lightning), Brian Rafalski (U. of Wisconsin, Detroit Red Wings), and Rafalski again tallied. In all, twelve different Yanks notched points in the game.

Ryan Miller (Michigan State, Buffalo Sabres) faced only 11 shots in the game and turned aside 10 of them.

A matchup against Canada looms for the US in prime time on Sunday night. The host Canucks are loaded but are beatable in a one-game format. The US can show a little of what it's made of on Sunday night, but hopefully won't show too much before the medal round begins next week.

As I've written here before, I like the composition of this team. GM Brian Burke has rid the US program of the "old guard" with the likes of Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Richter, and Bill Guerin who won the inaugural World Cup back in 1996 and headlined the international competition for the next decade. This year's Olympic squad is young, fast, and exciting, but is a heavy underdog going into this weekend's tilt against Canada. Sunday will be a fine test for this young squad.

Gophers Dominate Wisconsin

In a season marred by inconsistency, the Gopher basketball team followed up disappointing losses to Michigan and Northwestern with a 68-52 victory over #13 Wisconsin Thursday night at Williams Arena. The win was the Gophers' third-consecutive triumph over the Badgers and pushes the Gophers' record to 6-7 in the Big Ten, 15-10 overall.

Blake Hoffarber (16), Damian Johnson (11), Ralph Sampson III (10), and Devoe Joseph (10) each notched double-figures for Minnesota, who shot 58% from the floor in the first half in route to a nine-point lead. Cooler shooting in the second half put the game total to a more pedestrian 48%, but it was enough on Thursday night. The Gophers took care of the basketball for the most part with 11 turnovers in the game.

Wisconsin's poor shooting ruined its chances all night long. Although the Badgers turned the ball over just five times, they shot a putrid 31% from the floor. Trevon Hughes had 19 points, but the bulk of those came at the end in virtual garbage time. Jason Bohannon added 18 for UW.

The Gophers now face Indiana at the Barn on Saturday night - a game they should absolutely win. Matchups against Purdue and at Illinois follow next week. The Gophers need to win at least two of three to keep flickering NCAA Tournament chances alive, but realistically need to win them all.

Thursday's win was the Gophers' second-most impressive victory of the season (the win over Ohio State was #1), and makes fans even more disappointed about the two losses last week and the loss at Indiana last month.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Time For a New Voice?

In the Gophers' disappointing season, calls for the dismissal of coach Don Lucia have become increasingly louder over the past few weeks. The team's current 1-5 skid has relegated the Gophers to second-division status in a season in which they were realistically expected to compete for the league - if not national - title. Far from one who believes in knee-jerk reactions (remember, I was called "Sid" for my desire to have football coach Tim Brewster coach a fourth season), it has become apparent to me that a change in leadership of the hockey program is necessary.

The hockey program appears to be stuck in neutral right now. The Gophers finished seventh two seasons ago, but beat Minnesota State in the playoffs to advance to the Final Five and snagged a NCAA Tournament berth. Last season, the Gophers finished fifth, thanks largely to their season sweep of St. Cloud State. The swept those same Huskies to advance to the Final Five, but lost the play-in game to UMD and were out of the NCAA Tournament. 

This season began with very high expectations, given that the Gophers returned a ton of talent from the previous year's roster and added talented freshmen Nick Leddy and Zach Budish to an already solid roster. The season started out like a dud with the Gophers being shut out three times in the season's initial four games and has not rebounded much since. Minnesota has hovered around the .500 mark all year long and will miss the NCAA Tournament for a second-consecutive season, barring an unforeseen miracle.

The last sentence is damning, given that the 'U' hosted a regional at Mariucci Arena last season and will do the same at the Xcel Energy Center this season. Unlike basketball, college hockey not only allows bur forces host teams to play in regionals at the host site, provided they qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers' missing the tournament last season and likely to do the same this season means no tournaments in consecutive seasons when they have hosted a regional. That is simply unacceptable.

I've heard all the arguments this season why Gopher fans have been disgusted by the team's play:
  • "We're better than this"
  • "We're the 'Notre Dame' of college Hockey" (never mind that there is an actual Notre Dame which plays college hockey)
  •  "This is a 'what have you done for me lately' business"
  • "Lucia hasn't done anything after the national titles" (as if those are to be discounted)
  • "Lucia cannot recruit"
And so on....

Up until the past few weeks, I've dismissed the arguments and calls for Lucia's dismissal because there were plenty of reasons not to dismiss the hockey Gophers. First and foremost was the team's remaining schedule, packed with nationally-ranked opponents, and provided Minny with opportunities to rack up quality wins against highly-ranked teams and padding the all-important PairWise rankings. After getting swept by St. Cloud State, splitting at Alaska-Anchorage, and getting swept at Denver, that hope has gone out the drain in the form of a 1-5 run when all the pressure was on the team. Worse, other than the opening games in the St. Cloud State and UAA series, the Gophers looked listless and suffered breakdown after breakdown. I am not one to judge whether or not the team quit in any game, but the speed and energy has been oftentimes lacking during this crucial span.

It's clear that it is likely time for a new voice at the 'U.' Lucia is a great coach and recruiter, but for whatever reason it hasn't worked well for him over the past three seasons. Perhaps the recruiting edge has been lost in that the focus has moved to bring in all-star teams of Minnesota high school-age players instead of more seasoned junior players. Perhaps, those brought in have balked at being third-liners in college after being scoring superstars in their prep careers. For whatever reason, Lucia and his staff have been unable to get the most out of the players this season. In some cases, it looks like players are regressing. Whispers from NHL circles suggest the same.

Right now, AD Joel Maturi needs to do something. The supporters of Gopher hockey are angry and have a right to be. This year's team had legitimate title expectations and in no way, shape, or form should be fighting for its NCAA Tournament life right now. Mariucci Arena is quiet on game nights and hundreds of empty seats abound. After three years of mediocrity, season ticket renewals are bound to decrease again - there were around 90% after last season.

A shake-up is needed in this program. Don Lucia will go down as one of the great Gopher coaches of all time. He belongs with John Mariucci and Herb Brooks in Gopher lore. The two national titles will be forever ingrained in Gopher fans' minds. However, with a stagnating program personified by underachievement over the past three seasons, it's time for a new voice to be heard from behind the bench.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

US Scores Win in Olympic Opener

The United States Olympic hockey team scored a pedestrian victory in the first game of their round robin action on Tuesday in Vancouver, defeating Switzerland 3-1.

Bobby Ryan (Anaheim Ducks) scored an unassisted goal late in the first period to give the US a lead. David Backes (Minnesota State, St. Louis Blues) added another unassisted tally nearly six minutes into the second to give the US all it would need. Ryan Malone (St. Cloud State/Tampa Bay Lightning) converted a power play tally from Ryan Suter (U. of Wisconsin/Nashville Predators) to seal the victory.

Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) made 14 stops in a game in which he wasn't asked to do too much.

The US will be in action again Thursday against Norway. The big test ahead is Canada on Saturday night in a prime time affair.

The young US team got the jitters out in the first game against a team they were supposed to beat and now move forward as an unbeaten squad. This is exactly where this team is expected to be.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pucksters: They're Done

The Gophers completed their series with North Dakota on January 16 with a 5-1 victory at Mariucci Arena. The victory gave them three of four points against the Sioux and put the Gophers back on the map for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The balance of the season featured some tough series, but the Gophers appeared to be hitting their stride.

Instead, the Gophers were swept in a home-and-home series against St. Cloud State, and then split up at Alaska-Anchorage. After a bye week, Minny was throttled at Denver and appears buried in the second division of the WCHA standings. With six games remaining in the season and the team finding itself seven points out of home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, it's safe to say they're done this season.

When the Gophers had a chance to make a run on a season already marked by inconsistency, the team responded with a 1-5 mark in three crucial series and is now fighting to stay out of ninth place. They had opportunities over the past two weeks to move past North Dakota (another disappointing team) into sixth place, but failed to accomplish this task. UND's thrashing of St. Cloud State on Saturday put the Sioux three points ahead of the Gophers in the standings, making it unlikely they can be passed.

Of course, that the Gophers find themselves in seventh place at all is disappointing in and among itself. At the start of the season, it was clear with the returning roster that the Gophers would be one of the teams to beat in the WCHA. The season started out on a rough note against North Dakota and Denver (three shutouts in two weekends) and has never really gotten on track. An 8-2-1 run from November 28 to January 16 gave the season some promise, but ended in spectacular fashion with the team's current 1-5 predicament.

The Gophers have netted the third-fewest goals among WCHA teams and rank 44th of 58 Division I teams in goals per game. With the talent on this roster, this is unacceptable. The goaltending of Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson has been decent most of the season and is a big reason why the season hasn't been an even bigger disaster. Team defense has been suspect all season long and turnovers have been epidemic. The issues have not corrected themselves as the season progresses.

Wild Assistant GM Tom Thompson remarked last weekend that the Gophers lack passion. I jumped to the team's defense by basically attacking the messenger, whose team has its own passion problems. However, Thompson may be onto something is suggesting that effort may be an issue for the team this season. I simply refuse to accept the notion that Minnesota lacks the talent to compete with the big boys of the WCHA. They get all-star recruiting classes each season and will add another good class for the upcoming season, so talent is never an issue. However, they are clearly not a good TEAM, which is something beyond talent.

The season has seemingly slipped away with the current 1-5 run, and the Gophers will need a miracle to extend their season beyond the WCHA first round playoffs. It has been a monumentally disappointing season for the maroon and gold and few - if any - expected things to be this way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On Johnsson/Leddy/Barker.....

On Friday, the Wild addressed a few needs in their trade for defenseman Cam Barker from the Chicago Blackhawks. Barker is 23 years-old and is a quick, puck-moving defenseman the Wild covet as they continue their evolution under GM Chuck Fletcher and head coach Todd Richards into a more vertical, speed-conscious team. Yes, Barker will be expensive ($6.25M over the next two seasons, which is why he was sent out of Chicago), but he is a young and experienced defenseman who should thrive in Richards's system.

The Wild sent away defenseman Kim Johnsson and the rights to Gopher defenseman Nick Leddy. Johnsson is similar in many ways to Barker, but he is expensive ($5.3M this year on the final year of his four-year contract) and 10 years older. Getting him out of the picture also frees the Wild to make efforts to sign defense Marek Zidlicky. Leddy was the Wild's first round draft pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, and trading his is a bit of a surprise, but not totally unexpected, given the Wild's organizational depth of young defenseman and the fact that the Hawks were certain to ask for another talented player when they sent Barker packing. It was a good move for the Wild - hockey-wise and cap-wise.

The trade is the easy part; the aftermath of the trade deserves further exploration.

Before I start the rest of my post, I need to make some disclosures. First off, I cannot stand the Wild - haven't from day one - even if the team is far more watchable under Fletcher and Richards than they ever were under former GM Doug Risebrough and ex-coach Jacques Lemaire. I rarely miss an opportunity to take a shot at a franchise which has enjoyed a puzzling tenure of good graces from a public which turns on its other franchises - pro or college - on a whim. Despite years of mediocrity, the Wild has received a pass from the public, and it bothers me. Secondly, I am a fan of the New York Islanders, for reasons which are far too complicated to explain here. This will become relevant later in the post.

In the aftermath of the Friday trade, the StarTribune's Roman Augustoviz posted items in his blog quoting Wild Assistant GM Tom Thompson as taking a few swipes at the Gopher program under coach Don Lucia. Here is what Augustoviz said about his conversation with Thompson:

Wild assistant general manager Tom Thompson was in St. Cloud for the Gophers' 4-3 loss to St. Cloud State on Jan. 22. He said he was disappointed the way coach Lucia's team played. Without passion, he said.

Thompson was asked about his impressions about Leddy. He said the freshman from Eden Prairie was one of the best Gophers, if not the best that night. Thompson said he did not trade Leddy out of concern for his development at Minnesota.
In Michael Russo and Brian Stensaas's article in Saturday's StarTribune, here is a comment attributed to Thompson:
"It's just the general situation there," Thompson said of the struggling Gophers. "They've had a poor year with their team, and the whole team. Every guy on that team just looks, there doesn't look like there's a passion to them.

"It's nothing particular against Nick. He was one of their best guys, maybe their best guy the night I saw him in St. Cloud. But it seems collectively, it was a disappointment to watch them."
Since we're in the business of ripping the Gopher program, here's a bit about Thompson:
  • Wild Assistant GM since 2002
  • Head scout since team's inception
  • Oversees all operations of amateur scouting
Clearly, Thompson has some credibility when it comes to scouting. However, his analysis of the Gophers' plan on the game he witnessed is sheer fantasy. I attended the January 22 game in St. Cloud and can concur that Leddy was one of the team's better players that night. To say the Gophers played with no emotion suggests Thompson was watching another game. Minnesota dominated play for most of the game and lost a one-goal game after a spirited comeback. They fired 42 shots on the St. Cloud net, but ultimately could not overcome a 3-0 hole they dug themselves in the opening stanza, mostly because St. Cloud cashed in 100% of Minnesota's miscues that game. Effort was clearly not a problem that night. Effort has been an issue at times during this very disappointing season, but it wasn't on January 22.

By Thompson specifically stating that the Wild did not trade Leddy because of his lack of development, to me, seems like code for saying that they did. This is not the first time criticism of Lucia and player development has been lobbed his way. New York Islanders' GM Garth Snow uttered those same concerns when the team pulled Kyle Okposo out of the Gopher program mid-season in December 2007. At the time, Snow was in his second season as Isles' GM, after taking over for the fired Neil Smith in the summer of 2006. Smith oversaw the draft which saw the Islanders take Okposo, but was fired less than a month later and replaced by Snow. The Islanders took incoming Gopher freshman defenseman Aaron Ness in the 2008 Draft, and seems fine with Ness's development at the 'U.'

And, it's not as if Leddy isn't developing as scheduled. On many nights, he is the team's best all-around defenseman as a true freshman. He skates in the top pairing and gets a ton of ice time. He missed seven games after breaking his jaw in late October, but has adjusted to the college game quite well. In 19 games, Leddy has recorded 1-4-5.

Back to Thompson, it's not like he has the track record of a Lou Lamoriello when it comes to drafting players. Let's examine his first round draftees since 2004:
  • 2004 - A.J. Thelen (complete bust)
  • 2005 - Benoit Pouliot (bust; traded to Montreal)
  • 2006 - James Sheppard (bust)
  • 2007 - Colton Gillies (headed toward bust status; currently in Houston)
  • 2008 - Tyler Cuma (injured last season; developing)
  • 2009 - Leddy (traded)
So, it's not like Thompson has much of a track record to complain about the "passion" of the local team and then make suggestions that the team was concerned about Leddy's development. The question is, why trade him if you were concerned? Why not just pluck him out of the program like the Islanders did with Okposo? Sure there may have been a numbers game in the organization with young, puck-moving defensemen, but why Leddy? It's never a bad thing to have too many good defensemen in the organization as one never knows how they will develop. It's likely Chicago coveted Leddy and the Wild had to acquiesce. If that's the case, then fine. However, Thompson needn't make comments about the Gophers' lack of passion when he has plenty of issues of which to worry with his own club.

I did not intend this post to be a defense of Don Lucia's handling of the Gopher program. There will be plenty of time for criticism as the season progresses and the Gophers are seemingly locked for a second-division WCHA finish despite a roster full of top NHL draftees. As soon as the post-mortem is written on this season, there will be plenty of criticism of Lucia in this blog, and there certainly was some this week. However, Tom Thompson and the Wild are in no position to criticize the effort of the Gopher program. Thompson's childish comments are representative of the old guard of a historically-sophomoric organization crying sour grapes.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gophers Waxed in Denver Finale

Denver made it four wins in as many opportunities against the Gophers in 2009-10 with a 5-1 domination on Saturday night, burying the Gophers in a crucial series in the fight for home ice in the WCHA first round playoffs and virtually dashing Minny's NCAA Tournament hopes.

Joe Colborne had a hat trick for the Pioneers and Marc Cheverie made 32 saves to pick up his fourth victory over Minnesota this season. Only Tony Lucia's goal with 39 seconds remaining in the game prevented Chevy from recording his third shutout against the Gophers this season.

Colborne lit the lamp with just over a minute remaining in the opening frame on the power play to give the Pios a 1-0 lead at the break. Anthony Maiani scored a minute into the second to put Denver on its way, and Colborne's second goal midway through the second salted things away. He completed the hat trick - short-handed - 2:16 into the third period to make it 4-0. Brian Gifford's power play tally made it 5-0. In all, DU was 3-9 on the power play Saturday night.

However, the story of the game was Cheverie, who notched his fourth win of the season against Minny. In four games, Chevy recorded two shutouts and stopped an incredible 136 of 138 shots for an amazing .986 save percentage.

So, the Gophers are now 13-15-2 overall and 8-12-2 in conference play. With a sub-.500 record, they are ineligible for a PairWise ranking and have but six games remaining in the regular season. If they run the table - highly unlikely against Colorado College, at UMD, and Wisconsin - they'll still be in a tough spot with 15 losses of gaining an at-large tournament bid. So, their best hope at this point is to tread water and somehow make a run in the WCHA playoffs. The only shot is to win the Final Five, and they'll have to do so from the play-in spot like UMD did last season, and UMD's win marked the first time that had ever been accomplished.

As I have written before, it has been a monumentally disappointing season for the Gophers. Lofty pre-season expectations have been dashed in inconsistency. It is clear that this team just isn't as good as the top teams in the league, and Denver looks many times better than the Gophs. Yes, Denver is the class of the league this season, but the Gophers seem like they're completely out of their league. This is hard to fathom when one looks at a talented Minnesota roster, but it's true.

The time for complaining is near as the season slips away. I think it's safe to begin writing the epitaph on an unacceptable season.

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gophers Still Cannot Solve Denver

In three games this season against the Denver Pioneers, the Gophers have allowed a grand total of nine goals and have managed to score but once on certain All-American Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie. On Friday night, Chevy was outstanding again, making 44 saves in DU's 3-1 victory over the desperate Gophers.

In a game which was scoreless through the first two periods, Denver's Tyler Ruegsegger scored less than a minute into the third on a goal which caught Minny goaltender Alex Kangas severely out of position. The Gophers were sloppy over the next few minutes and were seemingly out of the game when Joe Colborne lit the lamp to give the Pios a seeming insurmountable 2-0 lead. However, the Gophers' Patrick White make it interesting with his tally with 1:38 remaining, marking the Gophers' first goal on Cheverie in almost nine periods of hockey. However, Denver's senior captain Rhett Rakhashani salted things away with an unassisted goal 17 seconds later to clinch the victory.

Kangas played ok, stopping 28 of 31, but he needed to stand on his head Friday night to match Cheverie, and he didn't. The team overall played very well, save for most of the third period's initial ten minutes, but could not solve Cheverie.

Once again, the Gophers missed an opportunity to pass North Dakota and move into sixth place in the WCHA. The Sioux lost at St. Cloud on Friday night and remain one point ahead of the Gophers in the league standings. Minnesota remains tied with idle Alaska-Anchorage for seventh place. The Gophers also missed an opportunity to make up ground on fifth place Colorado College, who holds the final home ice spot for the WCHA first round playoffs. The Tigers are Minnesota's opponent next weekend and are seven points ahead of the Gophers. However, Minnesota has games in hand over CC and the Tigers do not play this weekend, providing the Gophers with two weekends of opportunities to dig into the lead. So much for that.

Saturday is another must-win for the Gophers' very slim NCAA Tournament chances. If this team has a run in it, a road win at Denver would be a good place to start. Time's a wastin'.

Elsewhere in the WCHA:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wild Trades Leddy to Hawks

The Wild traded defenseman Kim Johnsson and the rights to Gopher defenseman Nick Leddy to the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday for defenseman Cam Barker in a mid-major trade. Leddy was the Wild's first round draft pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and is midway through his freshman season at the 'U'.

I'll have a show-stopper piece analyzing this trade on Monday (lots of Gopher pucks and hoops game coverage this weekend), so be sure to check here for recaps of the pucksters series at Denver and the hoops squad's contest at Northwestern. I don't think you'll be disappointed with Monday's entry!

Gopher Hoops Lose; Hey, Watch the Olympics Instead!

The Gopher basketball team watched its NCAA Tournament hopes go down the drain against lowly Michigan at Williams Arena on Thursday, losing 71-63. The Gophers are now 14-9 on the season and a disappointing 5-6 in Big Ten play. Given the schedule the rest of the way, it's highly unlikely the squad will get it together and receive an invitation to the Big Dance. I've written ad nauseum about the disappointment of this season and don't feel it necessary to re-hash the obvious. Given that I really don't feel like ripping a bunch of college kids today, I'll just leave it and say that the next game for the Gophers is this Sunday at Northwestern.

On a happier note, the Winter Olympics start Friday in Vancouver, and Olympic fans can catch all the USA Olympic squad action at Check it out for some cool stuff.

As for my plans during the Olympics, I cannot stand the games in general (I'll watch hockey and the women's figure skating finals, and that's about it), but will "cover" the US men's hockey action on Donny Puck. Stay tuned here for recaps from next week's games from our very young US squad in Vancouver.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter of Discontent Falls on Coaching

Tuesday, I ranted about how disappointing this winter has been for Gopher sports fans, given the mediocrity of University of Minnesota men's hockey and basketball thus far despite some lofty pre-season expectations. In the past few days, the two coaches of the teams have found themselves in the crosshairs of the public's and the media's discontent over seasons heading in the wrong directions.

Basketball coach Tubby Smith was heavily criticized by StarTribune curmedgeon Patrick Reusse late last week. Reusse cited a lack of progress of some of Smith's recruits, namely Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. Predictably, Sampson had a huge game for the Gophers in their win over hapless Penn State Saturday, pouring in 13 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and blocking two Talor Battle shots in the game's final minute. The Reusse article stated that the Gophers are being led this season with a couple of Dan Monson recruits (Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook), and that the heralded Smith recruits are either struggling (Iverson, Sampson, Devron Bostick, Paul Carter), flunked out (Al Nolen, Royce White), or suspended (Trevor Mbakwe). Reusse points out correctly that one member of Smith's first recruiting class, guard Devoe Joseph, is showing signs of promise.

Critics of Tubby point out that recruiting was his downfall at Kentucky, and that what Gopher fans are seeing right now is what frustrated UK for so many years. This is largely hogwash, but I am willing to put some of the recruiting blame on Smith. First of all, Royce White's off-the-court issues were very well documented over the years. White's talent has never been in question, but his commitment and attitude have definitely been questioned. The recruiting of White carried plenty of risk for Smith and his staff. Since White was the state's top recruit after last season, making it necessary for the U to pursue him. Gopher fans have grown tired of the state's top talent leaving for other schools, and Smith was committed to not have that happen with White. Similarly, the Mbakwe situation carried the same amount of risk. He transferred schools in his prep career, left Marquette, and played at a JuCo in Miami last season. Nobody saw the assault charges coming, but Mbakwe was somewhat of a risky recruit as well.

Blaming Smith for the Nolen situation is a bit much, since every program finds itself in an academic situation with its players. Colleges simply cannot graduate 100% of their players. To think this is possible is euphorian at best. 

This season is disappointing largely because Tubby Smith recruited a team which is simply not on the court right now. He thought Nolen, White, and Mbakwe would be in a rotation with Westbrook, Joseph, Johnson, Sampson, Paul Carter, Blake Hoffarber, and Iverson. Off-the-court issues prevented this rotation from becoming reality in 2009-10, and Smith deserves some blame for that. However, this program is progressing, and to mention otherwise is simply foolish.

On the ice, cries for coach Don Lucia's dismissal are growing louder, so much so that Athletics Director Joel Maturi took the rare step of backing the coach in a story on the Inside College Hockey site last week. However, there was a key point in the story which needs exploration:
“I can tell you that Don Lucia will be coaching Gopher hockey next year unless he chooses not to,”

That sounds like an out, no?

It's probably nothing, but if the season ended today, Minnesota would finish seventh in the WCHA on the heels of disappointing finishes the past two seasons. The Gophers are 22nd in the PairWise rankings, six spots behind where they need to be to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Despite a roster littered with high draft picks, the Gophers seem destined to finish in the WCHA's second division again this year.

The claims that Lucia cannot develop players have been uttered in years past, and many are uttering the same again this season, citing the slow development of defenseman Aaron Ness as a prime example. It's funny that these claims were not made when Lucia was winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002-2003, but with the program struggling now, many old wounds are re-surfacing.

One issue with the current Gopher roster is lack of offensive firepower, and that falls on the coach to some extent. Given the Gophers' position as a premier hockey program, Lucia and his staff have the presumed pick of the litter for hockey talent, especially in the state of Minnesota. Talented players come to the U with reputations as star players but often find the adjustment to the college game difficult. One reason for this may be convincing a prep superstar that he must become a checker in college. Of course, other schools have this same problem every year.

Coach Lucia has another heralded recruiting class on the horizon in 2010-11, and all accounts suggest this group will be as highly-touted as last year's group highlighted by Nick Leddy and Zach Budish. The challenge will be for Lucia to get some scoring punch out of next year's group. Of course, Minnesota hockey fans are growing tired of reading about strong recruiting classes and fighting for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

The challenge for Lucia and Smith will be to right the ship for the rest of the season. Although Smith will be safe regardless of what happens during the remainder of this season. the pressure on Lucia is a bit more intense. He'll likely need the team to make a run in order to silence his critics who are growing louder as the team's struggles continue.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Winter of Discontent for Gopher Sports

I have to admit that I've been a bit down in the dumps this week, sports-wise, that is. The Gopher hockey team had a chance to get its season back on track with a sweep of an inferior Alaska-Anchorage team and lost a 2-1 game Saturday, one night after throttling UAA with a seven-goal effort. The next day, the Gopher basketball team put up its worst defensive performance in three seasons in a nationally-televised loss at Ohio State to drop their league mark to 4-5. A last-second victory over winless Penn State over the weekend evened the mark at 5-5.

Thank goodness I am no longer a Viking fan, or the discontent would be only that much deeper.

I'd like to think that I am a bit measured when it comes to my local teams. However, I have to admit that I had sky-high expectations for both the Gopher basketball and hockey teams this season, and that my expectations have been completely crushed thus far. There are still two months for both programs to turn things around, but both appear unable to do so. Never can I remember being so thoroughly disappointed with the performance of my winter sports teams than in the winter of 2009-10.

Let's start on the hardwood. Coach Tubby Smith brought the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament in 2009 in his second season on the bench. Although the Gophers lost in the first round of the Big Dance last season, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this season. The Gophers lost just four players off last season's 22-11 team, and neither was a major contributor. Solid players Lawrence Westbrook, Damian Johnson, Paul Carter, and Al Nolen all returned. Freshman contributors Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph, and Colton Iverson were all coming back more experienced and polished, and each had shown signs in 2008-09 of being very good players. Add to the mix, a recruiting class which was nationally-ranked, and many thought the Gophers had an opportunity to finish top-three in the competitive Big Ten with a shot at making a run in the NCAA Tournament. A preseason #18 ranking was thought by many to be a conservative estimate.

Trouble started early for the M&G basketball team. Before the first game, Coach Smith suspended senior Devron Bostick and incoming freshman Royce White for undisclosed violations of team rules. White was the centerpiece of a strong recruiting class who was expected to be a major part of the rotation this season. Also, incoming transfer Trevor Mbakwe was also suspended due to pending legal issues stemming from an assault charge the previous spring in Miami, FL. Mbakwe was the big man of the incoming class who was counted upon to be the bruiser and banger to compliment the athleticism of White, Westbrook, incoming freshman Rodney Williams, and others. Instead, he has yet to suit up for the Gophers. Bostick returned after his suspension, but White's troubles were just beginning.

He was charged and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from an alleged theft incident at Macy's at the Mall of America, in which White was charged with getting into a physical altercation with a security guard. As this process was playing out, he was suspected in an apparent theft of a laptop computer in a U of M dorm room. White quit college basketball via a YouTube video, only to be allowed to practice with the team after family members and other advisers intervened on his behalf with Smith. White was charged with misdemeanor trespassing in the laptop theft incident, and just Monday announced he was withdrawing from the U - this time permanently - but has yet to speak with Smith. The roller-coaster involving White has proven to be a distraction for the team all season long.

Despite all the off-the-court shenanigans, the Gophers started the season with some promise. They beat three cupcakes at home before picking up a nice victory against #10 Butler in the 76 Classic holiday tournament. They lost to a red-hot Portland squad one night later in the tourney, and lost a tough consolation game to Texas A&M two nights later. In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge three nights later, the Gophers blew a lead and lost to Miami on the road, making it three consecutive losses for the team in games they should have probably have won. The team righted the ship after that and won its next seven games, including the first two Big Ten outings against Penn State and Iowa to move to 11-3. After a competitive first half, the Gophers were blown out at #4 Purdue, but rebounded with perhaps their best performance of the season against Ohio State a few days later, winning 73-62 and completely shutting down OSU's all-Big Ten player Evan Turner.

At 12-4, the Gophers faced a brutal task of having to play at Michigan State and Ohio State in a two-plus week span, sandwiching games at Indiana, at home vs. Michigan State and Northwestern. The Gophers played MSU tough in East Lansing for parts of the game only to fade at the end to drop to 12-5, and then lost an inexcusable game at Indiana in OT, while neglecting to close out an under-manned Hoosier team. The Gophers then came home to play Michigan State without their starting point guard in the most recent off-the-court issue, as Al Nolen was ruled academically ineligible for spring semester. Still, the Gophers played inspired ball against the Spartans, taking a 13-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the game. The Spartans mounted a furious rally and the Gophers' last-second chance to win went up in smoke with a tough loss. After rebounding from a sluggish start to beat Northwestern, the Gophers failed to show up at Ohio State and were blown out of the gym, thanks to 63% Ohio State shooting and plenty of alley-oops and dunks. Again, a last-second Westbrook shot at Penn State saved the team from further embarrassment.

At 14-8 (5-5 in the conference), the Gophers are faced with having to make a serious run to qualify for the NCAA Tournament; something which looks very unlikely.

On the ice, the problems have been different, but the results have been no less disappointing. The Gophers finished sixth in the competitive WCHA last season, but returned virtually everyone. Talent-wise, many thought this year's Gopher team was better than Coach Don Lucia's NCAA Championship teams of 2002 and 2003. The 2009-10 team featured three NHL first round draft picks (David Fischer, Nick Leddy, Jordan Schroeder), along with two high second round picks (Aaron Ness and Zach Budish). All in all, the Gophers have 20 NHL draftees on their current roster. With an incoming class featuring Leddy and Budish, the Gophers were thought to be adding to an already supremely-talented team which already had holdovers Schroeder, Ness, Cade Fairchild, Jay Barriball, and Alex Kangas in goal.

The problems started early for the Gophers. The team was shut out by North Dakota in its first game 4-0 up in Grand Forks, only to rally for a tie the next night. Returning home to face nationally-ranked Denver, the Gophers were shut out 3-0 on consecutive nights to start the season 0-3-1 in the league, scoring a total of three goals and losing all three games via shutout. The consecutive shutouts at home marked the first time that had occurred in over 60 years.

With pressure intense, the Gophers throttled Alaska-Anchorage at home on October 30, only to lose Leddy in the game to a broken jaw. They swept the Seawolves to move to 2-3-1, but were playing short on the blueline. The week which followed was not good, as Barriball went down with a season-ending knee injury suffered practice. Then, sophomore defenseman San Lofquist quit the team to join the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, leaving the Gophers with five regular defenseman and forcing walk-on Brian Schack into the lineup. The Gophers split that weekend at Wisconsin, and then split the following weekend at home against Bemidji State. The Sunday night loss to Bemidji started a four-game losing streak which culminated in the Gophers losing in their worst performance in recent history - a 6-0 loss to Michigan. They rebounded to beat Michigan State the next night, but then lost a home game to Minnesota State the following weekend.

Starting with Saturday, December 5's victory at Minnesota State, the Gophers appeared to have righted the ship, launching into a 7-1-2 run which ended with a three-out-of-four point weekend against North Dakota. The following weekend, the Gophers were swept against St. Cloud State, and split last weekend's set at Alaska-Anchorage. In Saturday night's game, the Gophers lost a chance to pass North Dakota in the standings and pretty much relegated themselves to second-division status in the WCHA.

The pucksters are 13-13-2 overall, and just 8-10-2 in the WCHA. The are currently in seventh place in the league, seven points out of fifth place - and the final home ice spot for the WCHA's first round playoffs. They are 36th nationally in goals per game (2.79) and are hanging by a thread in the vaunted PairWise rankings. Despite hosting a regional for the second year in a row, the Gophers appear to be a long-shot to get an NCAA Tournament bid this season.

Which performance is more disappointing is tough to say. Both teams had reasonable lofty expectations going into the season and neither squad has delivered. Both teams have significantly underachieved. Both squads have battled issued beyond their control, with the cagers battling off-the-court academic and legal issues while the pucksters have fought injuries and defections, but good teams move beyond issues.

As indicated earlier, there is still time to prove me wrong, but it looks like we'll have no dogs in the hunt come NCAA Tournament time for both basketball and hockey.