Redshirt Sophomore Zach Budish (photo courtesy Gophers Athletics/Paul Rovnak)
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It's strange to think with some of the negativity the University of Minnesota hockey team has faced over the last few weeks, they still control their own destiny.
Currently the Golden Gophers are tied for first in the WCHA with Minnesota Duluth at 24 points. Fourth-ranked Minnesota (16-8-1, 12-4-0 WCHA) holds the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs (15-4-3, 11-3-2 WCHA) after sweeping the top-ranked team in October and gets a chance this weekend to be in sole possession of first with UMD playing a non-conference series against Alabama-Huntsville. Despite losing three straight games, two were non-conference and they were able to salvage a split against North Dakota in one of the best games the Gophers played this year.
The team, however, does not have room to rest its laurels because Minnesota's opponent this weekend, 11th-ranked Colorado College, is in third place and can overtake them with a road sweep.
The Tigers have plenty of reasons to be motivated. They haven't beaten the Maroon and Gold in almost three years - including being blown out last year at home 9-4 - and the two teams have plenty of connections. Gophers head coach Don Lucia was behind CC's bench for 6 years and Minnesota assistant head coach Mike Guentzel's son Gabe is a senior on the Tigers. In addition, Minnesota forward Tom Serratore is from Colorado College's home base of Colorado Springs and the Tigers have five Minnesotans on their roster (including Guentzel).
Colorado College features one of the bigger challenges for WCHA defensemen in sophomore Jaden Schwartz. A 2010 first round pick of the St. Louis Blues, Schwartz has 24 points (7 goals - 17 assists) in 16 games and was recently Team Canada's captain in the World Junior Championships. He's a fast, talented playmaker who is tough to contain. Along with older brother Rylan (18 goals - 9 assists), the Schwartz duo cannot be contained.
On defense, the Tigers are led by Guentzel, who has three goals and fourteen assists, and junior Mike Boivin who has six goals and fifteen assists. The unit is eighth in the WCHA in defense giving up 2.95 goals/game and has struggled at times. However like the Gophers, Colorado has the talent to outskate opponents and win shootouts.
For Minnesota, last Saturday saw the team overcome many of the issues that plagued them during their three-game losing streak. A night after the first line of Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish were shut down and responsible for both North Dakota goals, the three stepped up and Bjugstad scored the first two in a 6-2 win.
In addition after struggling with both special teams and using its depth to its advantage, the Gophers got back on the right track last weekend. Although the power play struggles continue - for a team which at one point had the best PP in the nation, they've fallen back to earth - the penalty kill has shined in a less frequent capacity (aka taking fewer momentum-killing penalties). Nate Condon scored his third shorthanded goal of the season as Minnesota went 8 for 9 shorthanded in two games against UND.
However they will be without one of their better penalty killers this weekend after Nick Larson underwent wrist surgery this week.
All in all, this weekend should be full of offense with both teams averaging close to 4 goals/game. Each club has a goalie who is capable of standing on their head to win games - Minnesota has Kent Patterson and his six shutouts while CC has junior Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert - and that may be needed. That said, if the Gophers can get the same defensive effort from their blue line that they did last weekend (even in a 2-1 loss), the Maroon and Gold should be in good position to take away 3 or 4 points at Mariucci.
Minnesota faces Colorado College for two games Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena. Friday's game starts at 7 PM CST while Saturday's game begins at 5 PM as part of Hockey Day Minnesota. Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North and streamed on ESPN 1500,