Friday, March 12, 2010

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

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