My name is Nathan Wells and I’ve been asked by the good folks at SB Nation Minnesota to write about University of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey and other sports. It’s an honor to be asked and hopefully I can get the hang of this rather quick. From growing up shooting hockey pucks at the garage door pretending to be Brian Bonin to having student season tickets to traveling with my friend Brett to visiting arenas to pushing back important events in life to watch the Gophers play, I’ve been following the team through the highs and lows. I even ran out to Dinkytown to celebrate the 2003 National Championships with my best friend Carsten, which in hindsight was not the best idea we’ve ever had.
Fast-forwarding to this season, it’s been a tale of two teams for Minnesota. One team lays back and relies on its talent while the other digs in and sets the tone of play. While this makes some sense given the number of underclassmen playing, the inconsistency - something that has plagued the Gophers over the last three seasons – is putting them in danger of missing their third consecutive NCAA Tournament.
There’s no better example of this than last weekend’s series against Michigan Tech. Despite getting four points and sweeping the Huskies, the Gophers started off slow and coasted on their talent. Other than a powerplay goal by Erik Haula 1:49 into the game on Saturday (which eerily mirrored a waved-off goal by Aaron Ness the night before), the Gophers coasted on their laurels against a overmatched Michigan Tech team. The Huskies even out-shot Minnesota 12-11 in the first period on Saturday night and gave and gave Tech an easy goal on an unacceptable giveaway. Both actions are pretty bad given this is a team that has won a total of two games in the WCHA this season. Friday night was slightly better but had a similar underachieving result. The Gophers went into the first intermission scoreless and gave up the first goal five minutes into the second period.
However with the possibility of being upset and taking a major hit in the Pairwise Rankings, the second team kicked in. The listless, coasting team who couldn’t break out with a tape-to-tape pass became five players who used their speed and skills to create quality-scoring chances. On both nights Minnesota was able to light the lamp with a three-goal period and frustrate the Huskies into taking bad penalties and fighting Jake Parenteau on Saturday night. From there it was all downhill for Michigan Tech as the better team played as one and took all four points on Senior Weekend.
Unfortunately, more efforts from the lazy, inconsistent team have diminished the Gophers’ NCAA Tournament chances. Despite earning those four badly needed points to all but clinch home-ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, Minnesota is tied for 19th in the Pairwise Rankings when they need to be in the top 12 or 13. Quality wins against five of the top fourteen teams are offset by being swept by Mankato State, a 6-0 loss to Wisconsin and one to Alaska-Anchorage (all teams below Minnesota in the Pairwise).
The good news for Minnesota is that the Gophers are playing their best hockey at the right time – going on their first five-game unbeaten streak in over two years - and have a hot goaltender in Kent Patterson. These are both key for any team wanting to make a postseason run and win in single-game eliminations. However, inconsistent play from Minnesota throughout the season has put them in a position where they need to continue playing their best hockey or the Gophers will once again be watching the NCAA Tournament. Things are going well now, but we’ll see if it’s enough.