What a difference a year makes.
Last season, the University of Minnesota hockey team (4-0-0, 2-0-0 WCHA) started off their year 3-3 with all six games at Mariucci Arena and put themselves in a hole which they were unable to dig out. This season, the Gophers have started 4-0 and are ranked 8th in the country by USCHO after sweeping the defending national champions on the road. Their next challenge comes this weekend (Friday and Sunday) when the University of Vermont Catamounts (0-0-0) come to Mariucci for their first ever series against Minnesota in a non-conference showdown.
Last weekend's entertaining 5-4 wins over Minnesota Duluth showed the Gophers as a team able to come back from any situation and improve upon their weaknesses. After an opening weekend which saw Minnesota's special teams struggle, they picked things up. The Gophers went 6 for 9 on the power play while the penalty kill went 9 for 11 and was the difference maker for Minnesota. It's hard to credit one specific factor but returning assistant coach Mike Guentzel and the power play quarterback work of sophomore Nate Schmidt both deserve mention.
Minnesota had many players step up last weekend, including freshman Kyle Rau, who was named WCHA rookie of the week, and sophomore Nate Condon scoring three goals each. The variety of goal scorers bodes well for the maroon and gold and in fact they lead college hockey in goals per game. In addition, sophomore Erik Haula (5 goals - 4 assists) is tied for points per game while Schmidt leads the nation in assists by a defenseman.
However despite the offensive explosion, the most valuable player for Minnesota has been on the defensive side. Junior goaltender Kent Patterson once again stood out, stopping 92 of 100 Bulldogs shots and stonewalling multiple grade A opportunities by some of the best forwards in the WCHA. Unfortunately, the reason Patterson was forced to stand tall was due to several giveaways by the young Gophers defense. With only one upperclassman in the top 7, there are bound to be growing pains (as Ben Marshall found out when Duluth forward Caleb Herbert deked him out to end Patterson's shutout streak at 145 minutes) but sloppy play by the blue line is an area which Vermont can take advantage this weekend.
As far as the Catamounts (which according to Webster's is "any of various wild cats such as a cougar or lynx") are concerned, there is little to go off of as Vermont is opening its season. They did lose 2-1 in overtime to the United States Under-18 Development team last weekend, but that was an exhibition game. Like Minnesota, the Catamounts were picked to finish sixth (in the ten team Hockey East) after an 8-20-8 season last year; however Vermont is three years removed from playing in the Frozen Four and still have players who were on that team.
If Vermont is going to pick up points, it is likely going to happen through the work of senior goaltender Rob Madore. A four-year starter who led Vermont to that Frozen Four in Washington DC, Madore has plenty of experience playing in a hostile environment and can steal games despite losing 6'6" top defenseman (and Apple Valley native) Kyle Medvec, who is now in the Minnesota Wild system. The Catamounts do however bring in a 6'3" freshman defenseman in Michael Paliotta, who spent last season with the USNTDP and was picked twenty-one spots before Rau.
Vermont also struggled to score last season, which makes sense in a eight-win year, but they return four of their top five scorers. This includes former Catamount (and now Chicago Blackhawks forward) Viktor Stalberg's brother Sebastian. The apple doesn't fall far from the family tree as he lead Vermont last year with 28 points and a pair of three point performances. Add in sophomore Connor Brickley, a second-round pick by Florida, and junior Chris McCarthy and they are capable of putting up points on a sleeping defense.
This weekend should be an interesting test of two teams which are meeting for the first time. Minnesota is favored to take 3 or 4 points but would like to avoid a letdown at home after last weekend's dramatic games - the same type of letdown which has hounded the Gophers in years past - while Vermont wants to rebound from a disappointing 2010-2011 and reclaim its position at the top of Hockey East.
As a reminder, this weekend has a Friday-Sunday split due to Homecoming and the Minnesota football game Saturday. Tonight's Gophers hockey game starts at 6 PM while Sunday's game is at 1 PM. Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.