The start of the second half of the WCHA season is a tough one for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The schedule includes: home against Alaska-Anchorage, at Minnesota-Duluth, home against Denver and at Wisconsin.
However, perhaps the biggest test of the season is this weekend, which pits the Gophers (9-8-3 overall, 6-6-2 WCHA) against the No. 2-ranked North Dakota Fighting Sioux (16-5-0 overall, 11-3-2 WCHA).
North Dakota always stakes its reputation on physical play, and its lineup is chock full of upperclassmen. The Sioux's top line of Evan Trupp, Brad Malone and Matt Frattin are all seniors, and the team has lots of firepower, as Frattin's 20 goals leads the country.
Although the Sioux return one of the top goalies in the WCHA last year in Brad Eidsness, they have gone with the solid play of freshman Aaron Dell for most of the season. How would Dell handle his first action in the Gopher-Sioux rivalry?
Friday: 3-2 Gopher Win
The Gophers had a tough road ahead of them right from the get-go against the Sioux, as Minnesota is not known for playing physical and is relying on a bevvy of freshmen to carry the load.
Minnesota would have to rely on good efforts from its veteran players and a great performance from goalie Kent Patterson (as always) in order to secure the victory.
Early on in the first period, the Gophers actually looked like the better team. Minnesota was controlling the puck and playing at their own tempo, and the Gophers got out to an all-important 1-0 lead on a Mike Hoeffel wrister from the high slot at 11:22 of the period.
The Gophers went on the power play several minutes later on a Brett Hextall roughing minor, and they did not take long to capitalize again.
Jake Hansen pounced on a rebound to the weak side of Sioux goalie Aaron Dell, depositing it into the back of the net to give the Gophers a big 2-0 lead.
Minnesota would hold that two goal lead into the first intermission, outshooting North Dakota 12-10 in the period and playing an all-around great first 20 minutes.
North Dakota took it to the Gophers in the second period, though, aided by Derek Shepherd and the officiating crew giving the Sioux a couple of power plays. The Sioux had three power plays in the period.
The Gophers killed off the first Aaron Ness slashing call, but Brad Malone scored at 13:54 of the period on their second power play.
North Dakota also received a power play a minute later at 14:57 on a rather weak Aaron Ness interference call, but the Gophers were able to kill that off, too.
The real story of the second period came at the very end. With time about to expire and Kevin Wehrs holding the puck in the Gopher corner, Brad Malone took four strides and delivered a bone-crunching hit to Wehrs' head area, sending Wehrs a couple feet into the boards and clearing both benches.
Unbelievably, Derek Shepherd and crew did not call anything on the Malone hit, and somehow despite the fact that Chay Genoway instigated the benches-clearing brawl, the Gophers were hit with the extra penalty at the end of the period.
With a 2-1 lead heading into the third, the Gophers needed desperately to hold on to the win. However, the Sioux had an early-period power play, and took advantage with Jason Gregoire getting the game-tying goal at 1:31 of the period.
Just a couple minutes later, Andrew Rodwell took a tripping penalty, and on the ensuing power play, Nico Sacchetti jumped on a long rebound and his snapshot beat Dell and popped the water bottle in the goal, giving the Gophers back the lead.
After this goal, the Sioux pressed hard for the final 15 minutes of the period, but the Gopher defense bent and did not break, with Kent Patterson making several important saves to secure the game and seal a 3-2 victory for the visiting Gophers.
Three Gopher Stars of the Game
Third Star: Jake Hansen
Hansen played a solid game all around, contributing the team's second goal on a rebound chance as well as doing a good job on the backcheck and blocking some shots.
I thought this was one of Hansen's best all-around games as a Gopher, and his steady, solid game gets him the third star of the game.
Second Star: Kent Patterson
Patterson again played a stellar game, stopping 35 of 37 shots en route to leading his Gophers to a needed victory.
The Gopher defense did a better job than they have in many games this year, but Patterson still had to make many gigantic saves, including a North Dakota breakaway.
With second goalie Alex Kangas now down for the year, Patterson needed to step up and put the team on his shoulders, and he did tonight. Patterson garners the No. 2 star for his great performance.
First Star: Mike Hoeffel
Hoeffel scored the very important first goal of the game, and that goal gave the Gophers the attitude that they could win the game.
Hoeffel played a major role in the game even after his opening goal, hustling every shift all game long and sacrificing his body by blocking numerous shots.
Hoeffel's performance tonight is the type of performance the Gophers need from their upperclassmen if they are going to make a run into the NCAA tournament this spring. A great game gives Mike Hoeffel the No. 1 star in the game.
The Gophers take on the Sioux again Saturday night at 7:00 central time. Can they complete the sweep? Stay tuned, and go Gophers!