Gophers Hockey: Primed for Pittsburgh

It’s a good time to be a Gophers hockey fan. The women just completed an undefeated season, capped by a national championship. The men look to duplicate the national championship when the tournament starts tomorrow.

The Gophers received the no. 2 overall seed in the tournament. And their “reward” is a bracket with the North Dakota Sio… North Dakota Wioux, who are ranked 7th in the country. So, unless my gorilla math is wrong, the Gophers clearly got jobbed. Yet another example of the NCAA hating on the WCHA since it housed all four spots in the 2005 Frozen Four. But, ironically enough, this potential second-round matchup against the hated Wioux may be exactly what this team needs. More on that later.

Before getting ahead of ourselves and thinking about the nicknameless, the Gophers face a pesky and brilliant Yale team. Yale is 15th in the country and isn’t to be taken lightly, having beaten both CC and Denver on the road. The Don will be sure to make note of this to make the squad doesn’t overlook the Bulldogs. And as Gopher fans know, you can never overlook the lower seeds after Holy Cross pulled off Miracle 2.0 (or so their announcer thought).

Still, the Gophers should be able to dispatch with Yale. Building off a Frozen Four run from last year, this Gophers squad is deeper and more talented. Most important to this success has been the emergence of freshman goalie, Adam Wilcox. Blessed with an unreal season from Kent Patterson last season, the Gophers have had no drop-off in production when they turned to the freshman. He simply has been great all season. In 38 games, he’s boasts a 92% save percentage and 1.85 goals against. As hockey fans know, its imperative to have hot goaltending to make a run. And the Gophers have that in Wilcox.

The Gophers otherwise have an embarrassment of riches in talent on the blue line and offensively. From Bjugstad and Rau, to Marshall and Schmidt, talent litters the roster from the first line on down. And now the fourth line has really started to come together, reminding some observers of the 2002-03 National Championship teams, where the fourth-line was gritty, hard-working, and, importantly, understood their roles. Every good team needs this.

But, to what’s important. The Gophers are just about as well-balanced as you could wish. They rank 1st in the country in scoring 3.51 goals per game. They house the nation’s top power play, converting on an absurd 25% of their chances. They’re third in the country in only giving up 1.97 goals per game. And, in what is almost disappointing compared to the other stats, the Gophers’ penalty kill ranks merely 7th in the country. Finally, the Don has the Gophers playing strong and disciplined, averaging only 9.05 penalty-minutes per game, good for second-best in the nation.

It’s this overall depth and balance that makes the Gophers what they were throughout the course of the season – the nation’s best team. Because of this, the Gophers should prevail tomorrow over Yale and face the Wioux in the regional final.

As always, the hated Wioux will be a physical game, requiring the Gophers to stay disciplined and let their overall talent take-over. The one elephant in the room for any Gopher fan is the Gophers inconsistency of late in back-to-back’s. The Gophers went from mid-January to the second-week of March without sweeping a series. And even in March, the Gophers swept Bemidji St. in an OT game and another one-goal game. In the one-and-done format, the Gophers cannot afford to be inconsistent.

Which brings me back to the start – facing the Wioux in the second round in a back-to-back setting may be exactly what this team needs. There is simply no way the Gophers won’t be fired up and mentally ready for a regional final game against the hated Wioux.

This Gophers team is primed, not only for a Frozen Four run, but also a run at their 6th national championship. The quest starts tomorrow. Ski-U-Mah!

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