With Christmas and Finals behind them, the second-ranked University of Minnesota hockey team get back in the thick of things this weekend hosting Niagara, Princeton and Northeastern in the 21st annual Mariucci (nee Dodge) Classic. Northeastern and Princeton kick things off Friday at 4 PM while the Gophers and Niagara play each other at 7 PM. That is followed by the winner/losers of Princeton/Northeastern and Minnesota/Niagara playing one another Saturday with the Gophers playing at 6 PM.
Minnesota's (14-5-1, 11-3-0 WCHA) offense, which is second in the country averaging 4.15 goals per game, will be without two of their top three scorers this weekend. Sophomore Nick Bjugstad (16 goals - 11 assists) and freshman Kyle Rau (12 goals - 11 assists) are both in Alberta playing for Team USA in the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships. This means the Gophers will need to have others step up on the scoresheet like Erik Haula, Jake Hansen, Taylor Matson and Bjugstad and Rau's linemate Zach Budish.
Despite being without Bjugstad and Rau, the Gophers will be at full strength on the blue line. Sophomore Mark Alt had his best weekend as a Gopher the last series against Michigan Tech, scoring in both games, and Nate Schmidt is tied for the most assists in the nation with 20. Head coach Don Lucia has mentioned that Kent Patterson should start both games this weekend like he has all year, but it would not be a bad time for backup Michael Shibrowski to finally see some action.
Niagara (5-5-6, 7-2-2 Atlantic Hockey) has been playing their best hockey lately. The Purple Eagles have gone 3-0-3 in their last six games after beginning the season 0-1-4. The young team, which features nine freshmen, lead the nation in ties and are no stranger to the extra period having half their games go to overtime.
If Niagara is going to win tonight, they are likely going to have to shut down Minnesota's offense. Other than a 6-4 win over Bentley, their winning m.o. has been to grind out low scoring games; Niagara's leading scorer has 12 points in 16 games. To put that in perspective, the Gophers have 9 players with 13 points, albeit in 20 games.
The other two teams, Princeton (4-9-2, 3-7-1 ECAC) and Northeastern (7-7-2, 4-7-2 Hockey East) are running in opposite directions. The Tigers have struggled coming into the tournament (their first time at Mariucci since losing a heart-breaker in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth three years ago), going 2-2-1 in their last five games, while Northeastern has the nation's longest winning streak at six games after starting the season 1-7-2.
The Huskies have swept Notre Dame in South Bend and defeated Michigan during that streak, which comes despite losing star defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (the 14th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft by Dallas) after one season to Canadian Major Junior hockey. What makes it more remarkable is the fact that they have only six home games this season.
Regardless of who Minnesota ends up playing, they are looking to buck the trend of disappointing recent Mariucci Classics and continue their first-half success. The Gophers lost to Union and tied Ferris State last season, making it the third time in four seasons they failed to win their own tournament. Ironically the only time Minnesota has won the Mariucci Classic in that stretch (2007-2008), they defeated Northeastern in overtime to win the title.
None of the four Mariucci Classic games this weekend are broadcast on television. The two Minnesota games, however, can be heard on ESPN 1500.
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