After demolishing a weaker Sacred Heart hockey team last weekend, the fourteenth-ranked University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-0-0) travel to Amsoil Arena and open WCHA play Friday and Saturday with a much bigger challenge against the defending national champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs (1-1-0) began their season last weekend with a split at home against the number-one ranked preseason team Notre Dame. Minnesota Duluth, who defeated the Fighting Irish 4-3 in the Frozen Four semifinals last April, won by that same score Friday night before blowing an early 2-0 lead Saturday and losing 5-3.
Minnesota, on the other hand, did what few recent Gopher teams have done by actually exceeding fans' expectations. There have been too many cases since 2005 where Minnesota has let a less talented opponent stay in the game and eventually get a chance to win. Many of those were against Atlantic Hockey teams (see: RIT, Air Force and some school named Holy Cross) so despite Sacred Heart being one of the worst collegiate hockey teams, seeing the Gophers taking advantage of scoring opportunities is a great sign.
Another positive sign for Minnesota last weekend were the number of players developing and stepping up. At times the Gophers have relied on a line or group of players to score the bulk of their offense. Last weekend ten players scored with the goals balanced across each of the top three lines.
Each line flourished with the first line of Kyle Rau - Nick Bjugstad - Zach Budish shining Friday night and the Sam Warning - Erik Haula - Jake Hansen line picking up eight points (including Hansen's four assists) Saturday. Hansen, a senior who has underachieved on both ends of the ice during his first 3 seasons in Dinkytown, appears to finally be reaching his potential while sophomore Erik Haula scored half of his freshman total of six goals against Sacred Heart. That trend will need to continue against a tougher Bulldogs squad.
The biggest keys for this weekend will be the play of the freshmen and special teams. Of the seven freshmen playing for the Gophers last weekend, four scored their first collegiate goal while others like forward Travis Boyd made an impact killing penalties and winning face-offs (he won 70% Friday and Minnesota won 46% Saturday when Boyd sat). The WCHA is a different beast than junior hockey or Sacred Heart but the experience gained by Kyle Rau and Seth Ambroz last weekend should help make the adjustment smoother.
Minnesota Duluth, like the Gophers, are also relying on players to step up. After winning the national championship last season, graduation and early departures saw many players like Justin Faulk, Mike Connolly, Justin Fontaine and Mike Montgomery leave. However the Bulldogs still have dangerous talent like senior Brady Lamb, sophomore J.T. Brown, the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player and Jack Connolly, the only remaining remnant of the most potent line the last two season (with Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine). Although no one can replace Faulk, who along with Michigan's Jon Merrill was the best freshman defenseman in college hockey last season, Minnesota Duluth does have freshman Derik Johnson and four upperclassmen on the blue line.
If there was one thing to improve from last weekend for Minnesota it was special teams. Unfortunately for the Gophers, Minnesota Duluth had the third-best power play in the WCHA last season and their penalty kill held Notre Dame to two shots on goal in six power play chances Friday. With both teams having outstanding goalies in Kent Patterson and Kenny Reiter, every goal will be important. With Patterson having to make multiple outstanding saves on the penalty kill to preserve the first weekend shutout by a Gopher goalie since 1999 and the Gophers going 3 for 11 on the power play despite scoring fifteen goals, Minnesota needs to have a better weekend with a man advantage.
In the end, this series should tell a lot about where Minnesota hockey stands this season. As happy as Gopher Nation was for their neighbors to the north winning the national title last season, it would hard to believe that is not a motivating factor to those wearing the "M." Taking more than two points against the defending national champions would make a statement that this team is for real and ready for bigger and better things. The Bulldogs may have lost a few players but still present a huge challenge for the Gophers at home at Amsoil Arena.
Both games this weekend start at 7 PM and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North/ESPN 1500. However as previously mentioned, Saturday's game will be broadcast on an alternate FS North channel due to the Minnesota Wild facing the Detroit Red Wings. Be sure to check with your cable provider on which channel it will air.