Would slaying the giant be an appropriate metaphor heading into this weekend? With the Minnesota StateUniversity, Mankato men’s hockey team’s success against the University of Minnesota in recent years, that might be a bit much. But the Gophers are still the most intimidating team in all of college hockey.
No longer a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the Gopher men’s hockey team now belongs to the Big Ten. While Maverick fans will miss the most anticipated series’ of the year in what used to be a great WCHA matchup, this weekend should prevail as a great nonconference series in what we hope is a yearly dual between the Gophers and the Mavs.
Year in and year out, whether it’s a good year or a down year, everyone wants a piece of the Gophers. And why wouldn’t they? Minnesota is ranked in the top ten in the nation annually, nearly almost in the top five. Currently the Gophers sit as the top team in the nation at number one, so it makes sense that every team they play wants to be the team to dethrone them.
“You get prepared just like any other week,” said senior captain Johnny McInnis, “but I think it’s natural that we want to beat the best team in the country, which they have been when we have played them before.”
Even a few years ago when the Gophers had a couple of down years by their standards, they were still among the top-ten rankings throughout this stretch, and sports analysts and writers were just waiting for them to find their stride. Regardless of the season, because of the storied history of the Gopher hockey program, Minnesota is always the most watched and scrutinized team in college hockey and always carries the biggest target on their backs.
After the Gophers lost top players in Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, Zach Budish and Nate Schmidt, who all signed NHL contracts after last season, the thought was the Minnesota lineup might be a little thin compared to last season. However, the Gophers don’t rebuild their roster, they reload it.
With the highly skilled freshmen class and the emergence of junior forward Sam Warning this season, the Gophers are right where they want to be at this point in the year. With a record of 6-1-1, Minnesota, along with St. Cloud State, were the last two unbeaten teams in college hockey until last Friday when Miami-Ohio took down the Huskies and the Gophers fell 4-1 to Notre Dame. Both teams would rebound to gain a series split on Saturday. Also, beating Boston College, a team who is a favorite for the national championship, adds some more credibility to Minnesota, especially since they steamrolled the Eagles 6-1.
Where the Mavericks have really struggled this season is scoring. The Mavs have no trouble getting shots to the net but have had issues with finding the back of the net when they need goals, which was something they excelled at last season.
“We haven’t started the way that we would have liked, but we also understand that it is about the process and are continuing to get better as a team every day in practice and I like the direction we’re heading” said McInnis.
A Boston, Mass. native, McInnis leads the Mavericks in scoring with six points in eight games, while also tied for the team lead in goals at three. Sophomore forward Dylan Margonari is right behind him with five points, and sophomore forwards Teddy Blueger and Bryce Gervais are tied with McInnis for the goal scoring lead at three. More importantly is who is going to start in goal for the Mavericks this weekend.
Last year, sophomore goaltender Stephon Williams emerged as the best goalie in the WCHA, adding such awards to his trophy case as WCHA Goalie of the Year, WCHA Rookie of the Year, and First-Team All-WCHA. This year has been different for Williams. In six starts this season, he’s posted a goals against average of 3.40 and a .867 save percentage, far below his season statistics last season of a goals against average of 2.00 and save percentage of .924. Despite Williams proving that when he is on his game that he can be one of the best in the country, we may be watching a freshman start in goal this weekend versus the number one team in the country.
Freshman goaltender Cole Huggins played the second half of Friday night’s matchup against Bowling Green, stopping all nine shots he faced. He then started the game on Saturday night and finished with an impressive 33 save shutout, the first of his career in only his second start. Huggins’ other start was the Saturday game two weeks ago at Bemidji where he gave up only one goal and recorded his first win. So the freshman goalie who is 2-0 may have earned himself the right to start on Friday, but we’ll see if Hastings will go with the starter in Williams.
On the other side of the rink, the Gophers have an extremely potent offense.
Sam Warning is among the top five scorers in the nation with 15 points through eight games. His line mates, freshman forward Hudson Fasching and junior captain Kyle Rau, have 11 points and nine points, respectively. The Gopher lineup also includes freshman forward Justin Kloos, who has ten points through eight games, and senior captain Nate Condon, who is one of the fastest players in all of college hockey. Also thrown into the mix is sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox, who was just behind Williams for WCHA Goalie of the Year. Wilcox is a solid goalie and has a good mix of defenseman in front of him that includes sophomore Mike Reilly, junior Ben Marshall, and freshman Michael Brodzinski, all of whom are a threat to score from the blue line.
“I think it is safe to say that we respect the type of game that the Gophers like to play and they have been very successful with,” said McInnis. “While we are well aware of their explosiveness to this point, I think that we have been continuing to focus on our game and getting better at things that we need to; getting pucks to the net, using our speed, and playing good team defense.”
While Minnesota is atop the college hockey world for the fourth straight week, Minnesota State has fallen out of the top 20 rankings for the first time since nearly a year ago. Should this be a point of concern for the Mavericks? Not necessarily.
In the 2010-2011 season, the unranked Mavericks swept the Gophers in Mankato in a two game WCHA series and last season split both series with Minnesota. Even one win this weekend would certainly put Minnesota State back in the top 20, and a sweep would likely see them closer to the top ten. While at 4-4, the Mavericks may have anticipated a better start, but their incredible season last year started out much similar.
Ten games into last season, the Mavericks were 3-5-2 before they swept Wisconsin in Madison, and that’s where they found their groove. The Mavericks are hoping Saturday night’s overtime win will have a similar effect on their season.
“Saturday night was a step in the right direction for our team this year. It’s definitely something that can springboard us for the rest of the season” said McInnis. “Momentum is huge and nothing sparks that more than a tough overtime win at home in the WCHA.”
Minnesota State has a tall task in taking down the number one team in the nation, but as recent history shows, the Mavericks play the Gophers tough for a full 60 minutes. A win or two would propel the Mavericks back into the top 20 rankings, as well as give them some serious points for the NCAA tournament rankings when March comes around.
Friday and Saturday night’s games are scheduled for a 7:07 p.m. puck drop at Mariucci Arena at the University of Minnesota. Both games will be televised on Fox Sports North Plus, with pregame coverage starting at 6:30 p.m.