The grind continues.
After a weekend which saw the top-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers suffer their first WCHA loss against the University of Wisconsin, the schedule does not let up with the Gophers facing the St. Cloud State Huskies this weekend. The two-game series will be played as a home-and-home with St. Cloud State ( 5-5-2, 3-2-1 WCHA) hosting Friday and Minnesota (10-2-0, 7-1-0 WCHA) hosting Saturday in their only home game of a six-game stretch.
The Gophers look to be more consistent than last weekend against the Huskies. They were unable to create scoring chances against Wisconsin Friday night and mental errors were turned into goals by the Badgers en route to a 3-1 loss. Saturday was better for the Maroon and Gold - a three goal third period helped put an exclamation mark on both the weekend and a 4-1 win - but Wisconsin showed other teams a way to beat Minnesota.
Despite that, the Gophers have relished adversity so far this season; it is one of the reasons Don Lucia's team is first in the WCHA by three points. They have won two games this season after trailing in the third period and have scored five goals in the last minute of a game (with only one being an empty net goal). After having a poor start to the power play, it is now sixth in all of college hockey.
This past weekend also showed players rebounding from poor performances. The Nate Condon - Taylor Matson - Seth Ambroz line, which was quiet against North Dakota two weekends ago, came back Saturday with two goals. Freshman Kyle Rau and sophomore Nick Bjugstad both had their worst game of the season Friday yet rebounded Saturday to once again create scoring chances - including a goal for Bjugstad - and havoc for the opposing defense.
One player to look to rebound this weekend is sophomore Erik Haula. The Minnesota Wild draft pick is second in the nation with eighteen points (7 goals - 11 assists) but only has one point in the last five games. Although the Sam Warning - Haula - Jake Hansen line has cooled off since the beginning of the season, the three are able to score against a young Huskies blue line.
St. Cloud State has recovered from a 1-3 start to the year by taking three points from Wisconsin and splitting on the road with North Dakota and Minnesota State Mankato. Unfortunately they have been battling the injury bug all season. Starting goaltender Mike Lee, who has been one of the better WCHA goalies his first two seasons, appears to be out for the season after having surgery this week to fix a "lower body" issue. If that wasn't enough, senior Drew LeBlanc suffered a horrific leg injury against the Badgers which will keep the co-captain out for most of the season.
However, the Huskies still boast offensive firepower despite the loss of LeBlanc's twelve points in ten games. Junior Ben Hanowski leads St. Cloud State with 13 points and has scored a goal in four of the last five games. The Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick is joined by Jared Festler and sophomore Cam Reid as forwards who have double digits point totals.
Defensively the Huskies have three freshmen on the blue line - including Andrew Prochno of puck-splitting fame - and only two upperclassmen. But it is two sophomores, Nick Jensen and Kevin Gravel, who are leading St. Cloud State's defense in points and minutes in front of freshman goalie Ryan Faragher.
Faragher, who is 3-3-1 has a .925 save percentage in relief of Lee, was named WCHA rookie of the week three weeks ago after shutting out North Dakota and making 67 saves over the weekend. Although he has played well, Minnesota's Kent Patterson still has the edge between the pipes with five shutouts and a .935 save percentage. The senior goalie was also instrumental in keeping the Gophers in both games this past weekend by making multiple saves on Wisconsin odd-man rushes and breakaways.
For this weekend to be considered a success for Minnesota, they would need to take three or four points. It won't be easy as St. Cloud State considers the Gophers to be their biggest rival and are probably happy they will get a chance to play Minnesota in a Beanpot-style tournament once the teams leave the WCHA. While most Gopher hockey fans don't reciprocate - except possibly St. Cloud native Nate Schmidt - the Huskies' obsession (which fans have likened to Jan Brady), their team has proven to be able to win in hostile environments so far this season. Because of that and how last Friday went, the 90 mile drive north to the National Hockey Center will be important for Minnesota in this grinding stretch of road play.
Minnesota and St. Cloud State square off for two games Friday and Saturday. Friday's game starts at 7:30 PM at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud while Saturday's game starts at 7:00 PM at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Both games are broadcast on Fox Sports North although Saturday's game is on an alternate channel.