It's easy to say this past weekend did not go the way Gopher hockey head coach Don Lucia planned.
Minnesota (19-11-1, 15-7-0 WCHA) entered a two-game series against the University of Denver with the chance to get some real separation in the WCHA on the heels of a 4-2 run. Instead, the Pioneers swept both games and beat them at many of their own strengths. The Gophers now lead Minnesota-Duluth by one point and Denver by two with three weekends left in the regular season.
Instead of worrying about the teams behind seventh-ranked Minnesota, however, they might want to look at the team in front of them. Bemidji State (15-12-3, 9-10-3 WCHA) comes to Mariucci Arena for two games Friday and Saturday and the Beavers are as hot as ever. They've gone 4-1-1 in their last six games and swept Colorado College 4-2 and 4-1 last weekend. Simply put, they aren't a team the Gophers - who presently are 14th in the Pairwise Rankings - can look as being four easy points.
The Beavers have found their niche by playing defensive hockey, which is bad news for the Gophers who have struggled offensively, scoring more than 3 goals once since the New Year. Only 3 BSU players have more than 20 points (compared to 7 for Minnesota), led by Jordan George's 25. Junior captain Ben Kinne has been a catalyst for Bemidji State recently with a point per game average (2 goals - 5 assists) over his last seven games.
However, the biggest key for victory this weekend might be the battle between the two goalies. Gophers senior goaltender Kent Patterson has cooled off since posting six shutouts in 13 games and gave up a couple soft goals in the Denver series, along with two goals in the final 90 seconds (and the team almost gave up two more) in the last six games. He doesn't need to win games for Minnesota but they cannot afford to give up 9 goals in a weekend.
Bemidji goaltender Dan Bakala has been almost as hot lately as Patterson was early in the year, saving 94% of all shots in the last eight games. Overall he has a 2.48 GAA with a 9-7-2 record and .919 save percentage. He has the ability to steal games for the Beavers this weekend.
The Gophers will get back forward Kyle Rau, who sat out Saturday after being suspended one game for hitting Jason Zucker, which should reunite the first line of Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish and spark the offense. At the very least, they will need to not fall into a lull of letting Bemidji State capitalize on mistakes like Denver.
It's a new weekend for Minnesota but unfortunately for the Gophers, there aren't many left . A repeat performance of last weekend against a hot Bemidji State team could cost them both a WCHA title and worse, a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota and Bemidji State square off Friday and Saturday at 7 PM CT from Mariucci Arena. Friday's game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus while Saturday's rematch is on Fox Sports North.