University of Minnesota sophomore forward Nick Bjugstad (Photo courtesy
Minnesota plays the same team that eliminated them last season, Alaska-Anchorage, in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs. For more on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, check out The Daily Gopher.
Last weekend may have seen the culmination of the first regular season title for Minnesota since 2007 but for the Golden Gophers, the real work lies ahead.
Minnesota (24-12-1, 20-8-0 WCHA) begins their postseason quest for another trophy or two against twelfth-seed Alaska-Anchorage (9-23-2, 5-22-1 WCHA) at Mariucci Arena this weekend. The Gophers, currently 7th in the Pairwise Rankings, swept the Seawolves in their only meeting this season in Anchorage back in October 5-0 and 3-1. UAA, however, knocked Minnesota out of the postseason last season when they swept the Gophers in the first round.
In fact, Alaska-Anchorage is the only team to defeat Minnesota in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Mariucci since it opened in 1993, also winning one game in 2007.
It's been a tough season for the Seawolves to say the least but it's especially true up front. Junior forward Mickey Spencer left the team at midseason and news came out today that leading scorer Mitch Bruijsten was dismissed for academic reasons. Alaska-Anchorage has had trouble scoring - they've scored 22 games in their last ten games and no one has more than nine goals - so losing Bruijsten will put more pressure on goalies Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson and the Seawolves blue line.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has also been relying on defense lately. They've only scored more than three goals once since January 14th and were shut down at times by Wisconsin's defense last weekend en route to a split. They have powerful names on offense with Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, Erik Haula and last Saturday's hero Nate Schmidt but will need to use them if the Gophers are going to advance to their first Final Five in three years.
Both teams have solid goaltending. All-WCHA goalie Kent Patterson found his groove Saturday after being pulled for the first time all season the night before and continues to shine with seven shutouts and seven games only giving up one goal. Kamal has been a thorn in the Gophers' side, standing on his head in a trio of Seawolves victories in the last year-plus, but both him and Gunderson have a save percentage under .880% this season.
In the end, this weekend's series is Minnesota's to lose. Not only is it at home but the Seawolves have won 5 games since playing the Gophers in October and winning two at Mariucci would not be anything less than a major upset.
Then again, it wouldn't be anything new.
Minnesota faces Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs Friday, Saturday and (if necessarily) Sunday. All three games begin at 7 p.m. Central and will air on Fox Sports North. Friday and Sunday's games are on FSN+ (find channel here) and Saturday will be on FSN.