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After playing their biggest rival and a team on the cusp of the top ten, it's strange to think this weekend's series against a sub-.500 team might be bigger than both.
For the second time in three weekends, the University of Minnesota (17-9-1, 13-5-0 WCHA) faces a team for the second time this season in the St. Cloud State University Huskies (10-12-4, 7-8-3 WCHA). The home team won the last time these two teams met, with St. Cloud State winning 4-3 November 18th and the Gophers getting their revenge the next night 5-0 on the heels of a Nick Bjugstad hat trick.
This weekend's series is also a home-and-home. Friday's game will be played at Mariucci Arena and Saturday's game is at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
Third-ranked Minnesota is coming off of a split at home to Colorado College last weekend in which two high-powered offenses combined for six goals in two games. It was a great showing for the much underrated Gophers' defense, who only allowed one goal from the high-powered Jaden Schwartz, Rylan Schwartz and Jeff Collett line, and their fourth straight game allowing two goals or less.
Unfortunately Minnesota is only 2-2 in their last four games because the offensive output has not been matched. They've scored ten goals over that stretch, with six of them coming in a win against North Dakota, but despite going up against a couple tough defenses and hot goalies there were positive signs. A third goal on Saturday was overturned and the Gophers have out-shot their opponents in each of the last four games while depth players like Nate Condon, Taylor Matson and Nico Sacchetti (who scored the game-winning goal Saturday) stepping up to score.
St. Cloud State came into the first series with Minnesota battling injuries and that problem has only continued as the season rolls on. At one point last weekend the Huskies were down to ten healthy forwards after Jordy Christian and Cody Thorson were injured. Thorson is questionable for this weekend's series and is more likely to play than Christian, who missed practice on Wednesday.
He joins Drew Leblanc, Mike Lee (who were both injured before the November series against the Gophers) and the departed Cam Reid and Mitch MacMillan as holes in the Huskies' lineup. Reid, who scored against Minnesota in their first series, left St. Cloud State over winter break to join the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL and MacMillan transferred to North Dakota.
That's not to say St. Cloud State are pushovers. Freshman goalie Ryan Faragher has continued to shine after a 40 save performance in the Huskies'4-3 win over Minnesota with a .914 save percentage. The same can be said for freshman defenseman Andrew Proncho who has 4 goals and 16 assists in 25 games.
At the same time, the Huskies have gone 4-6-2 since their win against the Gophers although they've split series with the same two teams Minnesota faced.
This weekend's series should be a benchmark for the Gophers. They've continued to struggle on Friday nights, going 1-3 in their four Friday games, and with the series starting at home Friday it would be a good game to break the streak in front of 10,000 fans at Mariucci Arena. Putting together a sixty minute effort from both the offense and defense in one game is key; especially with their postseason chances not being a guarantee.
Minnesota and St. Cloud State face off in a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday at 7 PM. Friday's game is broadcast on BTN from Mariucci Arena while Saturday's is on Fox Sports North live from the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.