Gopher Goal Celebration (photo courtesy Gophers Athletics/Paul Rovnak)
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After a week off to recharge their batteries, the University of Minnesota hockey team (19-9-1, 15-5-0 WCHA) returns to the ice this weekend against the University of Denver (15-9-4, 10-6-4 WCHA) at Magness Arena in Denver, Colorado.
Minnesota is on a high note right now as they have won four of their last five games and swept St. Cloud State. That series saw a return to form for the second line with all three forwards - Jake Hansen (Columbus Blue Jackets), Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild) and Sam Warning - finding the back of the net. Their contributions are big because when the Gophers utilize their depth they become one of the toughest teams in college hockey.
This weekend, however, will be a big test for Minnesota. The idle time was kind to the Gophers and they find themselves ranked second in the country by USCHO with a three point lead over Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA standings. 14th-ranked Denver, meanwhile, sits in fourth place six points behind Minnesota but have been kryptonite to the Gophers in the past. The Pioneers have won 11 of the last 14 games played between the two teams so going into enemy territory to get much needed separation with four weekends left in the regular season will be no easy task for Minnesota.
Denver has played well recently, going 5-1 in January, but are looking to rebound from a loss and tie to Colorado College last weekend. On the plus side, the Pioneers are finally close to being healthy after been plagued with injuries all season. Two players, sophomore defenseman David Makowski and sophomore forward Beau Bennett (Pittsburgh Penguins), will sit but the Pioneers got back starting goalie Sam Brittain (Florida Panthers) a couple weekends ago after offseason knee surgery.
Brittain is expected to start both games this weekend for the first time all year and his presence gives Denver back one of the top goalies in the WCHA. It makes for a good battle between the pipes with Minnesota's Kent Patterson (Colorado Avalanche) on the other end although the senior goalie did struggle in his last start against the Huskies.
Up front, Denver boasts two outstanding forwards in junior Drew Shore (Florida Panthers) and sophomore Jason Zucker (Wild). The two have been putting points up (Shore is fourth in the country with 40 and Zucker has 33) and can match the firepower of Minnesota's top line of Kyle Rau (Panthers), Nick Bjugstad (Panthers) and Zach Budish (Nashville Predators).
With both teams having high-powered offenses - the Gophers are ranked second in the nation with 3.72 goals/game while Denver is sixth with the top power play in the WCHA - defense will be the big difference this weekend. Minnesota's blue line has been underrated for most of the season compared to the flashy offense but they do deserve a lot of credit. The defense has been keeping teams off the scoreboard and helping the U win the low-scoring, close games which they would drop in recent years. Gopher opponents have scored less than 3 goals in 9 of the last 12 games while the penalty kill has shined over the last month since Notre Dame went 2 for 3.
At the same time, Denver's blue line has been solid this year with two seniors, John Ryder and John Lee (Panthers), leading the way. In addition, defenseman Joey LaLeggia has been a surprise for Denver as the freshman has 29 points in 28 games. He was named the national rookie of the month for January after putting up 12 points and blocking 11 shots. They will have to step up the penalty kill as the Pioneers have only killed 78.7% of penalties but at their best Denver does have the ability to stifle the Gopher offense.
This weekend should be a great series between Minnesota and Denver. The Gophers are the better team on paper but with DU owning them recently, having enough talent to challenge and regain their winning ways after stumbling last weekend the Pioneers are a dangerous team. No scenario would surprise me and in the end these two games will say a lot about the Gophers as they continue to try to make their first NCAA Tournament in four years.
Minnesota and Denver play two games Friday and Saturday from Magness Arena in Denver, CO. Friday's game starts at 9 PM CT and will be broadcast on both FSN+ and NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus). Saturday's game starts at 8 PM CT and is just broadcast on FSN+.