On a weekend that was supposed to mark a new beginning in the University of Minnesota athletic department, the feelings of woe and despair surrounding the Gopher hockey team remained uncomfortably the same.
The hiring of football coach Jerry Kill could not overshadow the hockey team's abysmal performance, as the Gophers was swept over the weekend by the Minnesota State University Mankato Mavericks.
Friday: 3-2 Gopher Loss
The Gophers were shorthanded before the puck was dropped. Mike Hoeffel missed the game due to a bout with the flu, and was replaced on the top line by the wildly ineffectual Patrick White. Alex Kangas got the nod between the pipes from coach Don Lucia, who was expected to go towards more of a goalie rotation than in the recent past.
Both teams played well in the opening period of the game. The play was up and down on the rink and fairly even throughout the period, and even the goals scored were more a result of the open, flowing play than of one team dominating the other for significant stretches of the game.
Mankato struck first, on a hard shot through loads of traffic by defenseman Ben Youds. Youds pulled a very familiar Mike Vannelli-like move, faking a shot at the point and sidestepping his man to find an open shooting lane. The goal, at 6:12 of the period, gave the Mavericks an early lead, and as we all know the Gophers have only won one game this year when they give up the first goal. The game they won, though, was one in which they struck back right after giving up the lead, and the Gophers did that again Friday as Nick Bjugstad fought through a defender to reach the puck lying open in the crease and nudged it across the goal line to tie the game at one goal a piece less than two minutes after the Youds marker.
However, Mankato took full advantage of a Gopher penalty kill that ranks in the bottom three in the nation and scored a power-play tally at 13:11 of the period to retake the lead. The play continued to be fast and even for the remainder of the period, and it did not appear that one team was much better than the other. Surprising, considering the Gophers were 5-4-1 in the WCHA prior to the weekend slate while Mankato was 2-6-2. The Mavericks always seem to step up their game versus the Gophers, but eventually the Gophers edge in talent would surely wear away at the Maverick will, right?
The second period saw a little bit of a Gopher letdown. The defense softened enough to let Maverick forward Adam Mueller walk out of the corner with the puck, and Alex Kangas softened up quite a bit in letting Mueller's weak backhander get through the five-hole and into the net, giving the Mavericks an important two-goal cushion.
Nick Larson and Nico Sacchetti hooked up past the midway point of the period to get the Gophers back within one and put a little more jump into their steps. Sacchetti's long shot from the blue line was kicked aside by Mankato goalie Phil Cook, but Nick Larson beat his man to the rebound and fired it past Cook to get the Gophers within one goal again. There were no more goals the rest of the period, but the Gophers stepped their games back up to the same level as Mankato, who had showed no signs of letting down throughout 40 minutes.
The Gophers really started to put the pressure on in the third period, firing shot after shot at the Maverick's Cook. Cook, however, was equal to the task. The Gophers had plenty of chances in the period, including several power-play opportunities and a 6-on-4 advantage for the last minute of the game, but Cook stoned Minnesota to lead the Mavericks to victory.
The Gopher player of the game Friday has to be Nick Larson. Larson again scored a big goal to get the team back into the game. His hustle has always been the most prominent aspect of his game, but if he can mix a little scoring punch in like he has been the last couple weekend he could become a very valuable player to the Gophers shortly.
Saturday: 2-1 Gopher Loss
The result of this game ended up being the same as Friday night, but the feel of the game was completely different. The Gophers dominated every facet of the game, but their inability to finish and terrible special teams doomed them to a zero-point weekend.
Kent Patterson got the start in net and again looked like he was the veteran goalie of the Gopher tandem. Patterson played well, stopping 30 shots in total, but the real story was Phil Cook, who stood on his head and amassed 49 saves during the game.
The first period was another fast paced one, but the play favored the Gophers. Jay Barriball and Jake Hansen each had breakaway opportunities that were stopped by Cook (or, in Hansen's case, he lost control of the puck before he was able to get a shot on goal). Nick Bjugstad's can't-miss one-time attempt was thwarted when the freshman's stick broke on the shot attempt, and Bjugstad had another goal disallowed when Nate Condon was in the crease and impeded Cook's path to make the save. Kent Patterson was solid if not spectacular, and Mankato was lucky to get out of the period with a 0-0 tie given the amount of quality scoring chances the Gophers piled up.
The second period was very similar to the first. The Gophers put tons of shots on goal and had numerous good opportunities, but again Cook stopped everything the Gophers threw at him. A late power play gave the Mavericks a chance to take the lead going into the third period, and they did not disappoint, with Rylan Galiardi scoring at 19:11. The way Phil Cook was playing, it appeared that the one goal might be all Mankato would need.
However, the Gophers put on the full-court press in the third. Minnesota recorded 23 shots on net during the period, and got another breakaway opportunity from Jay Barriball (who missed). Mankato's Kurt Davis gave the Mavericks that all-important two-goal lead when he scored on a half-breakaway by firing a rocket from the left circle past Patterson's glove side and off the inside of the post before settling into the twine. Davis' goal did not break the backs of the Gophers, as Cade Fairchild tucked a bouncing puck into the net just 39 seconds after the Davis goal to get the Gophers back within one.
Mad scramble would be a good way to define the Gophers charge to the finish, with Minnesota putting chance after chance at goaltender Cook. Again, though, Cook steered aside all the Gopher chances. A Cade Fairchild slashing penalty at 19:47 ended the Gophers' chances and sealed the victory for the Mavericks. The Gophers finished with 50 shots on goal, but only one of those shots made it past Cook, who was outstanding in the victory.
The Gopher player of the game Saturday was Nick Bjugstad. Bjugstad is really starting to come into his own over the past couple weekends, using his large frame to play with a physical edge as well as his tremendous skill to stickhandle through opponents and put himself in a position to score. Bjugstad should have scored twice on Saturday, and I don't think it's any fluke that he's picked up his scoring over the past month.
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend
Third Star: Mike Hoeffel
Although Hoeffel didn't play in Friday's game, he made his presence felt in Saturday's contest. Hoeffel is at his best when he's in the corners, scrumming for the puck and digging it out to continue the offensive rally. A healthy, productive Hoeffel could be the cure for what ails the Gophers moving into the second half of the season.
Second Star: Kent Patterson
Patterson has moved up to the No. 1 goalie on Minnesota's depth chart, and rightfully so. He rarely gives up soft goals and plays solid positionally all the time. Having two solid goaltenders is a good thing, and Patterson continues to show that he is a viable option as a starting goalie.
First Star: Nick Bjugstad
Bjugstad really impressed this weekend, using size and skill to put himself in position very frequently to help out the team. Bjugstad should have scored two goals on Saturday, and his goal on Friday was all hustle. The Gophers will need his scoring punch if they look to rebound from the sweep at the hands of the Mavericks.
The Gophers head into their toughest series yet, at home against the visiting Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Duluth has only lost two games so far this year, and they could steamroll an unsure Gopher team. If the Gophers can steal two points this weekend I think that should be considered a success. Frankly, my money is on one point for the maroon and gold.
See you at the rink!