The Gophers took on Union College and Ferris State last weekend, in their first games back after the University’s Christmas break.
Gopher fans were hoping for more nice than naughty in the games launching the team into the second half of the season, but the team left fans two big lumps of coal.
Minnesota lost to Union and tied Ferris State in the annual Mariucci Classic, the traditional holiday tournament that marks the beginning of the second half of the season.
For the first time in a long while, the team did not even contend for the championship of their own tournament, and as the losses pile up, the road to the NCAA tournament gets tougher to make out.
Friday: 3-2 Gopher Loss
The Gophers took on Union College in Friday’s opening tilt without two of their top six forwards. Top-line center Erik Haula and last year’s Minnesota Mr. Hockey Nick Bjugstad were out of the lineup.
Both players were playing for their countries in the World Junior tournament being held in Buffalo this year, with Bjugstad donning the Red, White and Blue of the USA and Haula pulling on the Suomi sweater of Finland.
Both players are excelling in the tournament, with Bjugstad scoring the game-winner against Haula’s Finnish squad in the preliminary rounds.
The Gophers certainly would miss the two playmaking freshmen, as scoring had been the team’s strong suit throughout the first half, and Union is known as a team that can stifle opposing offenses.
The Gophers were in action for the first time in three weeks, and from the look of their play, it appeared they had not been skating for a while longer than that. The team came out absolutely flat footed, with no life and no spark.
Union, a Top 15 team in the country playing with less than Top 15 talent, looked comfortable letting the Gophers spin their wheels and played their solid defensive system, limiting the Gophers to shots from the perimeter of the zone.
The game was pretty listless throughout the first period, with Union getting the better of the chances and Gopher goalie Kent Patterson stopping everything he saw.
However, a Union turnover deep in their own zone gave the Gophers a rare scoring chance, and Jacob Cepis deposited the chance from right in the slot through the legs of the Union goalie and into the back of the net.
It looked as if Cepis actually fanned on the shot, but it was enough of a change-up to beat the goalie and give the Gophers a 1-0 lead late in the first period.
Cepis roared back just several minutes later, pushing the puck out of the Gopher defensive zone and beating the lone sluggish Union defenseman in the neutral zone to come flying in on the Union goalie all alone on a breakaway.
Unfortunately for Cepis and the Gophers, the senior winger’s hard wrister clanged high off the post and stayed out of the net.
However, the Gophers were (somewhat paradoxically) rewarded for a terrible period of hockey with a 1-0 lead going into the first intermission.
The teams played even-up for the first half of the second period, until Gopher forward Tom Serratore took a charging penalty at 8:48 of the period, which gave the nation's best power play (31.6 percent success rate) an opportunity they didn't pass up.
John Simpson absolutely sniped a wrist shot that beat Kent Patterson high on the glove side for his fourth goal of the season to tie the game up at one goal each.
Not to be outdone, the Gophers took advantage of a power-play opportunity of their own when Aaron Ness' great hands skills and quick thinking got the puck up to Jacob Cepis and Hoeffel on a 2-on-1 power-play rush, which Hoeffel deposited into the back of the net to regain the lead.
Right off the ensuing faceoff, though, Union attacked, and Josh Jooris poked the puck past Kent Patterson just 13 seconds after the Hoeffel goal to knot the game at two.
The rest of the second period concluded with little fanfare, and the teams were tied all throughout the third period as well. Both teams went into overtime with much to gain, but the Gophers had the most to lose.
The Mariucci classic games were the last chance the Gophers had to beat non-conference opponents, crucial in the Pairwise rankings which ultimately determine the 16 team field for the NCAA tournament.
Many view the NCAA tournament as the mark which coach Don Lucia must reach if he is to keep his job after the season.
However, Union pressured early in the overtime and scored on their second shot of the extra session, as Josh Jooris again scored to give Union the victory and force the Gophers into fighting for third place in their own tournament.
Gopher Player of the Game: Aaron Ness
Ness may not look like the best player on the ice whenever he's out there, but his decisions with the puck are as good as anyone's, and he is the only defenseman on this Minnesota team that plays solid defense.
He's a great passer and has terrific hand skills, and his breakout pass to Cepis and Hoeffel on the 2-on-1 to set up the Gophers' second goal showed off Ness' brain and his hands.
Gopher goalie Kent Patterson also played well, but we've reached a point where he needs to play well every game if the Gophers are going to have a chance to win since the defense gives up so many point-blank opportunities.
Ness gets the nod from me for his outstanding defensive play as well as his ability to start the breakout with snappy passes that are always tape to tape.
Saturday: 2-2 Tie
The Gophers needed a win against Ferris State on Saturday to bounce back from the gut-wrenching 3-2 defeat at the hands of Union College the night before.
However, whether the team isn't putting in the high-level effort necessary to win college hockey games or whether the team just isn't that good, they were forced to settle for a tie that makes it very difficult for Minnesota to get back into the NCAA tournament picture.
Once again, the Gophers gave up an early goal, on the power play no less, as Matthew Kirzinger scored his third goal of the season against the nation's fourth-worst penalty kill (74.4 percent) at 4:09 of the period.
Minnesota got it back towards the end of the period when Jake Hansen tucked a rebound into the net off of a Seth Helgeson slapshot from the point, and the Gophers entered the first intermission tied at one goal each.
The second period was dominated by Ferris State, who held an 11-4 advantage in shots on goal during the middle frame.
The Bulldogs also won the battle on the scoreboard, as Brett Wysopal scored five seconds after a Jay Barriball roughing minor expired to lead Ferris State back to a one-goal advantage.
The goal came at 16:28 of the period, and Ferris State would take their lead and the momentum into the visitor's locker room following the period.
Minnesota picked up their play in the third period, creating chances and drawing penalties and generally looking like the better team. However, they were down a goal and in need of some offense.
They received it on the power play, as Jay Barriball scored his 11th goal of the year at 7:38 of the period on a deft tip off a Jake Hansen shot.
While the goal leveled the game at two goals each, it seemed to solidify the defenses of both sides, and despite another Gopher power play, no more goals were scored and the game went into overtime.
Both teams played decently in the extra session, with Minnesota again getting the better of the chances and having a 4-1 shots-on-goal lead, but the Gophers could not get the puck past Bulldog goalkeeper Pat Nagle and the game ended in a draw.
The two teams were scheduled to have a shootout, with Mariucci's PA announcer broadcasting as such to the fans still in attendance, but Coach Lucia canceled the event, later saying that there was "no point" to the exhibition.
While many have speculated that Lucia was avoiding the shootout because he did not want the team to endure another loss, I don't see it as a big issue.
The shootout was for third place in the tournament, and with shootouts not counting in the NCAA anyways (all games that are tied after a five minute overtime are counted as ties by the NCAA), there really was no point to the shootout.
However, Coach Lucia probably could have handled the situation more tactfully than he did, and once the shootout had been announced over the PA system, the event should have continued.
Gopher Player of the Game: Kent Patterson
Patterson continues to be the MVP of this Gopher team, keeping Minnesota in nearly every game he starts.
Patterson made 27 saves on 29 shots Saturday, and with the porous Gopher defense ahead of him, he needed to make plenty of high-leverage saves, too.
Without Patterson's efforts, the game surely would have been a loss for the Maroon and Gold, and that effort deserves the Player of the Game nod.
As mentioned several times above, the road to the NCAA tournament (and likely the road to Don Lucia saving his job) is getting murkier.
The Gophers need to go on a tear in the second half a la Dave Hakstol's North Dakota team in order to jump enough teams in the Pairwise to earn their way into the NCAA field.
Now that the Mariucci Classic is behind them, that road HAS to start in Grand Forks, as the Gophers take on an always tough North Dakota squad that is ranked No. 2 in the nation following a blistering 16-5-2 start.
The Gophers, perennial hot starters and slow finishers, are due for a change of fortune, and I am on record believing that if this team can learn to play some team defense, it can make some noise in the second half.
The road begins in Grand Forks. The second half of the season starts now.
If the Gophers come out hard and take two-plus points on the weekend, we could be in good shape.
However, one point or a UND sweep spells big trouble for Minnesota and head coach Lucia as they look to right the ship come playoff time.
The puck drops at Ralph Engelstad Arena at 7:30 Friday night and 7:00 Saturday night. Go Gophers!