This year's Minnesota Gophers made a living of playing about 30 good minutes of hockey per game. Last weekend against St. Cloud State Huskies (1-2-1 coming into the weekend), the Gophers played to their average, but the 60 good minutes all took place during Saturday night's tilt.
The Gophers escaped the series with their first two league points and first WCHA win of the season, but it didn't come easy.
Friday: 5-2 Gopher Loss
Not really much to say about this game. Alex Kangas started in net and gave up the first five goals of the game on 16 shots in the first and second periods before being pulled for backup Kent Patterson midway through the middle frame.
St. Cloud did capitalize on several powerplays during that span, but Kangas was not the rock in net that we have come to expect from him. Patterson did a nice job in relief of Kangas, giving up no goals the rest of the way, but the damage inflicted by SCSU the first half of the game was just too much for the Gophers to overcome.
Late goals by Mike Hoeffel and Taylor Matson cut the deficit to three, but the game finished as a 5-2 St. Cloud victory. The Gophers did have plenty of offensive chances, but St. Cloud goaltender Mike Lee made the big stops when it counted and his team held on to the victory.
This would mark the third game in a row where the Gophers gave up at least the first three goals in a game (down 4-0 and 3-0 against UNO a week earlier, and down 5-0 in the Friday contest against St. Cloud). Spotting your opponent a three-plus goal lead is not the way to win many hockey games. Would the Maroon and Gold be able to right the ship on Sunday afternoon and salvage a split?
Sunday: 2-1 Gopher Win
In short, yes.
Already down to 0-3 in WCHA play, the Gophers needed to play with some desperation and grit in order to avoid being swept at home two weekends in a row to start the conference season. Coach Don Lucia decided to give the Sunday afternoon start in goal to Junior Kent Patterson, who played well in relief of Kangas on Friday, stopping all 12 shots he faced after Kangas and the Gophers had handed St. Cloud a 5-0 lead midway through the second period.
Although the Gophers gave up the game's opening goal once again (a slapshot from the point by SCSU's Brett Barta at 6:12 of the first), they responded the very next shift, with Jacob Cepis walking out from beside the net and stuffing the puck past goalie Dan Dunn to even the score. The quick response seemed to give the Gophers a big confidence boost, or at least it staved off the deflation that the team must have felt from giving up three consecutive big leads before Sunday's game. The Gophers played the rest of the period strong, and capitalized on a late power play when senior captain Jay Barriball took a Cepis feed across the net-mouth and lit the lamp, to give the team a 2-1 lead heading into the locker room.
The three first period goals were all the scoring in the entire game. Amazingly for a team like the Gophers that gives up about five goals a game and scores about five goals a game, they played stout team defense and goalie Kent Patterson made numerous stops on good St. Cloud chances to seal the victory.
If Friday's game was one of the worst played full games the Gophers have had this year, then Saturday's game was one of the best. Forwards were backchecking and playing defense in their own zone, defensemen were solid and not caught behind the play, and the goaltender made key stop after key stop when his team needed him, and got help from all the players on his team playing in front of him. Sixty minutes of good hockey is what it takes to beat a good team, and the Gophers put in an solid effort throughout the entire game to secure victory and the weekend split.
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend
This section is (this week) also known as "Three Gopher Stars of Sunday's game" since there really wasn't much to shout about on Friday night. However, here are the Golden Gopher stars of the weekend:
Third Star: Jay Barriball
Barriball always seems to have a hand in the action. He scored the go-ahead goal in the Sunday game that would stand as the game-winner. Barriball is first in the WCHA in goals and second nationally, and his scoring has definitely given this year's Gophers a little firepower that it has sorely lacked the past several seasons. Game in and game out, Barriball makes good plays and finds himself in good position to bury the puck, which he does pretty frequently. The game winner gives him the No. 3 star on the weekend.
Second Star: Jacob Cepis
Cepis set up Barriball's game winner with a nifty goal-mouth pass, but it was his own goal, the Gophers' first of the game on Sunday and the game-tying goal, that nets Cepis the No. 2 star this weekend.
Coming off a demoralizing 5-2 loss on Friday night, the Gophers could not afford to get down big yet again on Sunday. When St. Cloud scored the first goal just six minutes into Sunday's game, the odds were not in the Gophers' favor.
However, instead of packing it in and getting discouraged, Jacob Cepis did what he has done his whole career in the Maroon and Gold: play hard, go to the net and create scoring chances. Cepis created his own chance when he took a nice feed from sophomore forward Zach Budish near the corner and went right to the net with the puck, slithering the biscuit through the legs of SCSU goalie Dan Dunn and into the back of the net. The Cepis goal came on the very shift after St. Cloud had taken the lead, and I think if Cepis doesn't score there, the team has a good chance of getting discouraged and quitting on the game.
First Star: Kent Patterson
This weekend, Patterson was the backstop that the Gophers have been hoping Alex Kangas would be: solid positionally, sound mentally and able to come up big when called upon.
All told, Patterson stopped 37 shots on the weekend while only allowing one goal over four and a half periods of stellar hockey. Hopefully this type of performance can inspire Coach Lucia to play Patterson more often—having two solid goalkeepers is never a bad thing, and the more they can spell each other so that both are physically and mentally fresh when called upon, the better. Patterson gave his team a chance to win both nights this weekend, and for that he earns the well deserved No. 1 star.
This Gopher team is young. It's inexperienced, it's talented, but most importantly, it's learning. There is no other explanation how the team can play an absolutely horrible game on Friday night followed by their best game of the young season so far on Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps the system is starting to click to the younger players. Maybe the freshmen are realizing that they belong in a league as rough-and-tumble as the WCHA. Whatever the reason, Sunday afternoon's game saw Gopher players playing team defense, completing tape-to-tape passes and not giving up on itself.
I think I fall victim to imagining turning points as much as any other fan, but Sunday's game was the first in a long time that a Gopher hockey team put together a complete 60 minute effort, and honestly I like what I see when it does. This team can score at will when it clicks, and we know the goaltenders are as solid as they come.
The question now as it was before the season started is this: Can the small, young defensive corps keep the opposing team out of the high-percentage areas?
For the first five games of the year, the answer was a resounding NO. However, last night's game answered the question differently.
Sure, the defensemen are still going to be prone to lapses; they're not perfect and they're not NHLers. But when the forwards can backcheck and clear the rebounds from in front of the goal, this team can give up one goal in 60 minutes when the night before it gave up five goals in 30.
Let's see if the team can put together a couple more 60 minute efforts in Colorado Springs against Colorado College next weekend. If so, look out, because the Gophers might just be the Gophers again!