The end is near...
...the first half of the season, that is. The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers men's hockey team finish the first half of its WCHA schedule this weekend against the surprising Michigan Tech Huskies (8-7-1, 5-6-1 WCHA) at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota (13-4-1, 10-2-0 WCHA) comes off of sweeping Minnesota State at home in a pair of ugly games and looks to continue their winning ways against the Huskies.
For much of the last decade, Michigan Tech has been an afterthought in the WCHA and a regular in the cellar. In fact, the Huskies only won a total of four games last season. This season, however, Michigan Tech has surpassed that win total before Christmas in just the WCHA and are tied for sixth. Under new coach Mel Pearson, the Huskies have been able to turn things around and sweep Wisconsin and take 3 of 4 points from Denver. They were swept last weekend by UMD but there's a reason the Bulldogs are the top team in college hockey (despite being swept at home by the second-ranked Gophers).
Besides Pearson, a large reason for the Huskies' success has been because of their defense. They've given up 1.5 less goals per game this season compared to 2010-2011 and are getting quality play from senior goaltender Josh Robinson. He's 7-5-1 this season with a pair of shutouts and a .920 save percentage, third in the WCHA behind Gophers goalie Kent Patterson and UMD's Kenny Reiter.
For Minnesota, who is second in the nation with 4.17 goals per game, that presents an interesting challenge. However the Gophers have getting more scoring from secondary players and last weekend was the first sophomore Nick Bjugstad did not score a goal. Instead, senior captain Taylor Matson scored twice, Erik Haula continued his strong play and freshman Seth Ambroz scored for the first time since the opening game of the year.
With the Gophers facing a number of defensive teams lately, it would be surprising if Michigan Tech went away from that gameplan. At the same time it is hard to see Bjugstad go another weekend without scoring - he is second in the nation in goals with 15 - but regardless of his line's production, which also includes freshman Kyle Rau and redshirt sophomore Zach Budish - there are players who can pick up the pieces.
Michigan Tech has relied on a pair of senior forwards this season in Brett Olson and Jordan Baker. Both forwards missed large portions of last season with injuries but are at the top of the score sheet this year. In addition, Milos Gordic leads the Huskies with 7 goals this season and has been a Gopher killer in the past. The junior scored 4 goals last season against Minnesota in four games; including two in one game.
In the end, the edge still goes to the Gopher hockey team. There's a reason why they are the only team in college hockey with 13 wins, are ranked second in the nation and Michigan Tech has been a surprise team with a .500 record. Minnesota has more depth, a better goalie in Kent Patterson and is playing at Mariucci Arena where they have only lost one game all season.
However, the Huskies are well suited in the role of spoilers as the first half of the season draws to a close. With quality defense and the ability to shut down better teams, it's not like Michigan Tech has been a surprise all season.
Minnesota hosts Michigan Tech next weekend at Mariucci Arena. Friday's game is at 7 PM Central while Saturday's game starts at 8 PM. Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North with Saturday's game being shown on an alternate channel.