With two weekends left in the WCHA regular season, every game counts. For the first-place Golden Gophers, this weekend's final road series against Nebraska-Omaha (14-12-6, 11-8-5 WCHA) is especially important in the hunt for their first MacNaughton Cup since 2007.
Minnesota (21-11-1, 17-7-0 WCHA) holds a two-point lead over Minnesota-Duluth after sweeping Bemidji State at home last weekend by 3-0 and 4-1 scores. They got back on the right track despite being swept by Denver the previous weekend and remain four points ahead of the Pioneers after they split two games with Wisconsin.
Nebraska-Omaha, meanwhile, split a two-game series with Colorado College last weekend. The Mavericks saw a potential tying goal by freshman Dominic Zombo overturned Friday, losing 4-3, before taking Saturday's game 5-3. They presently see themselves tied with the Tigers and North Dakota for fourth in the WCHA and are battling for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Minnesota was able to rely on last weekend two cornerstones of their early success. Senior goalie Kent Patterson recorded his first shutout (seventh total) since November 19th last Friday and got a lot of help from the blue line en route to giving up only one goal. Bemidji State is a team which has been able to take advantage of turnovers but did not get many chances. They also were held without a power play opportunity by the Gophers on Friday.
One defenseman, freshman Ben Marshall, will be out this weekend after getting injured on Saturday. Either Chris Student or Blake Thompson will take his place.
In addition, both nights featured different lines stepping up and getting on the scoresheet. Friday night saw linemates Zach Budish and Nick Bjugstad score all 3 Minnesota goals while Erik Haula and Jake Hansen got 3 of the 4 Saturday goals. The Gophers are at their best when they are able to get scoring from the entire top-six and teams cannot focus on one group of players to shut down. That was the case early in the year when they started the season 9-1-0.
In contrast, the Mavericks' rely on their lethal top line of Terry Broadhurst, Jayson Megna and Matt White. The three forwards, led by White's 38 points, lead Nebraska-Omaha although players like freshman Josh Archibald (who was picked by Mavericks head coach Dean Blais to represent the US at the World Juniors alongside Bjugstad and Rau) and sophomore forward Ryan Walters (a former Gopher recruit) have stepped up in recent weeks. Walters scored twice in Saturday's win and will be looking to continue that against Minnesota.
On defense Nebraska-Omaha is led by the tallest player in college hockey, 6'8", 200 lbs Andrej Sustr, along with junior Bryce Aneloski. Aneloski leads the Mavericks with 19 points from the blue line and has scored four goals in his last seven games.
Like most Dean Blais coached teams, UNO relies on two goalies. Freshman Ryan Massa, however, has supplanted senior John Faulkner lately and could be in line to start both games this weekend. Massa has a .922 save percentage and was in net in relief of Faulkner when Nebraska-Omaha scored three times in the 3rd period last Saturday. How he and the Mavericks defense are able to slow down Minnesota's potent offense will be a big key this weekend.
Regardless, this weekend is a big opportunity for the Gophers. It's never easy to win on the road in the WCHA but a win or two over Nebraska-Omaha will get them that much closer to a regular season trophy and NCAA Tournament berth. They responded well to adversity facing one of the hottest teams last weekend but now it is time for Minnesota to continue their stretch of good play on the road against Nebraska-Omaha.
Minnesota and Nebraska-Omaha play two games this weekend at the Century Link Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Friday's game starts at 7:30 p.m. CST and will air on Fox Sports North Plus. Saturday's rematch begins at 7:00 p.m. CST and airs on the main Fox Sports North channel.
For more on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, check out The Daily Gopher. You can also catch up on the WCHA and college hockey over at Western College Hockey.