One way or another, third-ranked Minnesota will find out more about themselves when they face #13 Nebraska-Omaha this weekend at Mariucci Arena in a battle of teams on six-game unbeaten streaks.
The Gophers, who swept Vermont 5-1 and 3-1 last weekend, are currently tied for second in the WCHA with 10 points. They've also improved on one problem they had last year with their non-conference record. Minnesota currently is 5-0-0 against non-conference foes and is in a better place in the all-important Pairwise because of it. However, the Mavericks will be their biggest test to date.
While teams can only beat who is faced in front of them, Minnesota has faced 4 of the WCHA's bottom 5 through the season's first two months. It is kind of surprising to see names like Wisconsin or Michigan State struggling but the fact remains that the Gophers haven't faced a team in the top-30 this season.
Nebraska-Omaha, meanwhile, is one point behind Minnesota in fourth place and has more in common with them coming off their own non-conference sweep. The Mavericks held off independent Alabama-Huntsville 3-2 Friday before running away with an 8-0 win Saturday, which follows sweeps of Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth. At the same time, they also haven't faced a team in the top half of the WCHA and which makes this weekend all that much more interesting.
Minnesota continues to shine offensively and spread the goal-scoring load across the team last weekend. Eight different players scored a goal against the Catamounts (which for those who don't have fancy math skills means no one scored more than one), including A.J. Michaelson and Mike Reilly's (Columbus Blue Jackets) first collegiate goals. In fact, it was a breakout weekend for Michaelson, who had a goal and an assist playing as a wing on the third line instead of centering the fourth. That combination seemed to work and it wouldn't be surprising to see Gopher head coach Don Lucia stick with it.
At the same time, the top-six could get a boost with sophomore Sam Warning returning from an upper-body injury. Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) and Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild) have played well in his absence with 7 and 6 goals, respectively, but there have been moments where being without Warning has thrown off team chemistry.
The Mavericks, who did sweep Minnesota the last time they visited Mariucci (the Gophers returned the favor last year), bring with them college hockey's fourth-highest offense with 3.75 goals per game. Junior Ryan Walters (once committed to Minnesota before choosing UNO over an extra year in the USHL) leads Nebraska-Omaha with 16 points (6G-10A) in 12 games. Sophomore Dominic Zombo is not too far behind with 12 points and the Mavericks will test freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) and a Minnesota defense that has given up an average of 1.77 goals per game.
John Faulkner, meanwhile, should get the nod for Nebraska-Omaha although coach Dean Blais also played freshman Anthony Stolarz (Philadelphia Flyers) last weekend.
There is one negative in a weekend that will prove to be telling. Unfortunately for Minnesota Wild fans, freshman defenseman Nick Seeler (a 5th round pick in 20110 will miss this weekend's series after being injured last weekend.
Minnesota and Nebraska-Omaha play Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena. Both games start at 7 p.m. and will air on Fox Sports North.
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