With the College Hockey Showcase a thing of the past and the Big Ten Hockey Conference a year in the future, Minnesota is trying something different this Thanksgiving weekend. They are heading to Hockey East country.
For the first time since opening Agganis Arena with Boston University in 2005, the fourth-ranked Gophers will travel to the East Coast for a regular season series when they play the University of Vermont (2-5-2) this weekend at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
"I have never been to Vermont, so it will be a fun experience," said junior forward Erik Haula about this weekend.
He's not alone. Minnesota (7-2-2, 4-2-2 WCHA) is playing only their second-ever series against the Catamounts, with the prior one being a split between the two teams last year at Mariucci Arena. It's much different than the 20 years of playing the two Michigan Big Ten schools in the old College Hockey Showcase (along with Michigan State last year after the tournament was scrapped). The unfamiliar nature of playing in a new environment presents a challenge for them yet is one that the Gophers are up for.
It is also a good opportunity to help out their Pairwise ranking down the line in a rare non-conference series.
Vermont, meanwhile, is coming off a 3-1 loss to UMass in a pre-Thanksgiving tradition of their own. Since 1996, the two teams have played a game on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It also means that the Catamounts are playing their third game since Sunday, a feat in the world of college hockey.
The Catamounts team that Minnesota faces this time around is much different than last year's. Gone are goalie Rob Madore (graduation), leading scorer Sebastian Stalberg (signed a pro contract with the San Jose Sharks) while Connor Brickley is currently out with a forearm injury. Senior Chris McCarthy, who scored 3 points in Vermont's win over Minnesota, is back though after injuries cost him all but five games last season. He currently leads the team with 7 points in 9 games.
Although this year's team has been able to build upon the six wins Vermont had last year (with three of them being over NCAA Tournament teams), there are still some issues. Offensively they have been struggling to score - the Catamounts have scored more than 2 goals only twice this season - and are 53rd of 59 teams with 1.78 goals per game. It's the second week in a row Minnesota faces a struggling offense (the Catamounts are ranked right above last week's opponent, Wisconsin, in goals per game) and one they would like to try to take the opportunity to break out their secondary scoring.
Currently, Minnesota's top-three scorers (Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Kyle Rau) have 17 of the team's 36 goals. It's a recipe that, combined with even-strength play which has been underperforming by the team's own admission, means they've been relying heavily on special teams. Sometimes it works but others - like in the case of last weekend's Wisconsin series where the Gophers went 1-11 and were unable on 2 majors - leaves them out to dry.
While forward Sam Warning remains out with an undisclosed injury, two players that coach Don Lucia would like to see get on the score sheet more are right wingers Christian Isackson and Zach Budish.
Whether or not that happens this weekend remains to be seen. Regardless, the odds are in Minnesota's favor to make their first trip to Vermont a success after two consecutive three-point weekends in WCHA play.
Minnesota and Vermont play Friday and Saturday at 6:05 p.m. CT. Both games will be aired on Fox Sports North.
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