Roman Augustoviz spends Minnesota's winters covering college hockey, specifically the Gophers, and other University of Minnesota sports. During the summer, he writes about the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, with a dose of U sports sprinkled in. Follow him on Twitter @RomanStrib.
Two of the Gophers' best, most exciting games of the 2011-12 season came early. They swept defending NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth 5-4 in overtime and 5-4 in regulation at Amsoil Arena in their first WCHA series of the season. It was mid-October and the Gophers went on to win the MacNaughton Cup.
Now the two teams meet again -- for the first time since that series during which the Gophers faced 100 shots and still won twice. So it might be good to look back at those two games because, if the Gophers want to win another Cup, they need to start sweeping conference teams again.
They have only one conference sweep this season.
Here is the story from the first game 16 months ago:
By ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ
Star Tribune Staff Writer
DULUTH - The first conference game of the Gophers' season had a bit of everything. When it ended, the Gophers had a thrilling victory.
The Gophers scored two last-minute goals -- one in the third period, the other in overtime -- to edge Minnesota Duluth 5- 4 on Friday in the WCHA opener for both teams.
UMD, of course, is the defending NCAA champion and was playing at Amsoil Arena in front of 6,751 hometown fans.
"We never had any doubt in ourselves," said Nate Condon, who scored the game-winner with 56 seconds left in overtime.
"You've got to get lucky every now and then. I came off the bench and luckily no one saw me and [Taylor] Matson threw the puck right to me."
Once over the boards on his last shift, Condon skated directly to the UMD net. Matson, the Gophers captain, fed him the puck in the slot, but it wasn't a routine play.
Condon blocked the puck with one of his skates and it popped up.
"I swung at it out of the air," the sophomore winger said. "And it kind of went in. I didn't even see it go in."
Kent Patterson, his road roommate, probably did. The Gophers senior goalie was seeing every puck. He stopped a career-high 46 shots.
Even so, it looked as if Patterson would be the losing goalie until Erik Haula scored with 44 seconds left in the third period to tie the score at 4- 4.
"Once Haula got that goal, there was nothing that was going to stop us," Condon said. "Everyone felt great on the bench. Everyone was in great shape. We just battled there to the end."
There were 94 shots on net in the game and 25 penalties.
"It was a fast-paced game," Condon said, "but more than anything I thought there were bodies laying everywhere. Duluth tried to come out and tear us down physically and we answered it and even gave them a couple licks of our own."
The No. 14 Gophers (3-0) took a 2-0 lead in the opening period on power-play goals by Haula and Kyle Rau, who like Haula had two goals.
"The guys we need to score, scored," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
But UMD stormed back in the second period to tie the score twice at 2-2 and 3-3.
"Once they scored we got a little jittery," Lucia said, citing several reasons: Young players feeling the pressure of their first big-time road game, returning to a smaller rink and a group of freshmen and sophomores with not a lot of experience in the rigors of the WCHA.
Freshman Justin Crandall gave the Bulldogs their first lead at 4-3 with two minutes left in the third period to set up the dramatic finish.
"We probably won the game because of our specialties," Lucia said. "We only gave up the one [power-play goal] and scored three. And that is something we tried to emphasize."
Once the game went into overtime, that seemed to favor No. 9 UMD (1-2). The Bulldogs were 13-3-15 in their past 31 overtime games before Friday.
But Patterson stopped three more shots in overtime.
"They had 50 shots, which is more than I had in two games last weekend," said Patterson, referring to his two shutout victories over Sacred Heart. "But I like [these] games. It keeps me on my toes the whole time. My job is to stop the puck."
And he's good at it.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs had 50 shots again, the Gophers only 16, but the score and the winner were the same. Here is that story:
Gophers gut out a sweep
By ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ
Star Tribune Staff Writer
DULUTH - Talented teams find different ways to win.
On Saturday, the unbeaten Gophers' strategy against Minnesota Duluth for half the game seemed to be to make every shot count.
The Gophers had four goals on their first six shots en route to a stunning 5- 4 victory over the defending NCAA champions at Amsoil Arena before a sellout crowd of 6,784. That was the same score the Gophers won by on Friday in overtime.
But the rematch was a completely different game. UMD, not the Gophers, took a 2-0 lead in the second game and outshot the visitors 50-16.
Gophers goalie Kent Patterson, after stopping a career-high 46 shots the first night, tied his record the second night.
"I knew coming in it was going to be a long night," Patterson said, "especially after [Friday] night, going through all those shots. You just got to mentally prepare for each game individually and break it down minute by minute."
Said Gophers coach Don Lucia: "Our specialties won us the weekend. Our specialties and our goaltender -- when you score six power-play goals [three each game]."
Freshman Kyle Rau's goal midway through the third period gave the No. 14 Gophers ( 4-0-0, 2-0-0 WCHA) a 5-2 lead, a cushion they would need.
Caleb Herbert of UMD scored with 8:22 to play in the final period, J.T. Brown with 5:05 left as the Bulldogs crept within 5- 4. UMD pulled Kenny Reiter, their goalie, with 80 seconds and kept the pressure on Patterson until the final horn.
Patterson stopped 18 shots in the third period, sending No. 9 UMD (1-3-0, 0-2-0) to its third loss in a row.
UMD certainly started well. Travis Oleksuk scored in the first minute and Jack Connolly in the eighth minute on a five-on-three power-play. Defenseman Brady Lamb nearly made it 3-0, but his shot clanged off a post.
Then the improbable happened: The Gophers, outshot 18- 4 in the first period, tied the score before the period ended.
Jake Hansen scored from the high slot on a Gophers power play in the 13th minute. Nate Condon, who had an overtime goal Friday, got the Gophers' second goal in the 17th minute on a shot that went wide.
The puck caromed off the endboards in front of Reiter in the slot. Bulldogs defenseman Chris Casto either tried to pass the puck back to his goalie or inadvertently struck it. Either way, it found the net and Condon was credited with an unassisted goal.
"The critical moment of the game was [when] we got our first power play and [Hansen] scored," Lucia said. "Our power play is very confident right now. We were 3-for-3 on it, and we kind of battled our way back."
The Gophers took a 3-2 lead at 1:10 of the second period when Nick Bjugstad eluded a defenseman, then deked Reiter. Condon's second goal of the game, on a power play, made it 4-2 in the middle of the second.
Rau's goal midway through the third period, on a rebound from the right side of the net, proved to be the game-winner. It also continued a highly positive Gophers streak; they have at least one goal in every period this season.
"We're young; we made a lot of mistakes this weekend," Patterson said, "but like Coach [Lucia] was saying, we'd rather learn from our mistakes off a win than a loss."
Gophers coach Don Lucia reflected on how tight the WCHA race is on his weekly radio show: Six points separate first place from seventh.
"I don't think I have ever seen it this close, this late, with that many teams," he said.
The Gophers had two games in hand over first-place St. Cloud, North Dakota and Denver going into this weekend and picked up two points on them.
And the U still has two in hand over Omaha and Wisconsin.
"Obviously, getting back home will be critical we have success if we want to make sure we finish right toward the top of the standings," Lucia said. "Because we are in a position where we can still win league or we still could be on the road for the first round of the [WCHA] playoffs."
The Gophers play Minnesota Duluth and Denver at Mariucci the next two weekends, then plays at Bemidji State.
Here are the top seven teams in the WCHA logjam:
1. St. Cloud State 31 pts., six games left
2. Omaha 30, four games left
3. Minnesota State 29, four games left
4. Gophers 28, six games left
North Dakota 28, six games left
6. Wisconsin 27, four games left
7. Denver 25, six games left
Comments: SCSU goes 5-1, the MacNaughton Cup goes to the Granite City. Even 4-1-1 assures SCSU a tie for first. ... If Huskies go 4-2, Gophers would have to finish 5-0-1 to tie them.
"The best thing that happened to us is what we did nonconference, being 8-0," said Lucia, whose Gophers have just one sweep in 11 conference series. "It certainly put ourselves in great shape for the NCAAs. A year ago ... we came back from Denver after losing two and we were first in the WCHA , but we were a bubble team for the NCAA tournament. That certainly not the case this year."
The Gophers were the only Division I team which won all its nonconference games. So despite being fourth in the WCHA, they are No. 2 in the PairWise ratings which mimic how the NCAA fills out and seeds its 16-team tournament.
That means if the tournament were starting today, the Gophers would be one of the four No. 1 seeds dispersed through the four regionals.
Lucia said SCSU is in the driver's seat for the MacNaughton Cup, which would be the Huskies' first ever.
"We are in pretty good shape," Lucia said. "I am confident we are going to win a few more games here the rest of the year. Hopefully, we can continue to win to put some pressure on not only the top teams ... but maybe put some distance between some teams behind us as well."
The Gophers have the tiebreaker with North Dakota, so it's akin to being one point ahead of UND.
They also have two games in hand on Omaha and Minnesota State Mankato.
"People are going to be beating up on each other," Lucia said. "... We just have to win games and not worry about the league or winning it. It is just trying to continue to improve and play our best hockey in four weeks."
That would be for the start of the WCHA playoffs.
A bit of separation has occurred between the top seven and the team Nos. 8-12. UMD is tied for No. 8 with Colorado College. Both have 20 points.
The Bulldogs were in contention for home ice until a seven-game winless slide. The scores:
at Colorado College, L 5-1
Denver, L 3-0
Denver, L 4-3
Minnesota State Mankato, L 4-2
MSU Mankato, L 5-1
at Bemidji State, L 4-2
at Bemidji State, T 1-1 OT
So the Bulldogs have scored 10 goals in the past seven games.
"I am not sure we are catching Duluth at a great time," Lucia said. "Having lost a half-dozen in a row, the law of averages says that they are too good of a team for that to continue. They are going to win some games here."
Lucia said the Bulldogs are outshooting their opponents most games.
"A couple of their freshman are leading the charge from an offensive standpoint," Lucia said. "But I think they are a dangerous team. They are a very good skating team, which the Olympic-size sheet [at Mariucci] should suit them well this weekend."
Lucia said the Gophers have the ability to win every game they play and they have been in every game, but now they have to take the next step. "You are not going to win a league title, if you are not going to win two games on a weekend."
The Gophers have swept only one WCHA team this season, last-place Alaska Anchorage.
He said what separates the Gophers' record last year from this year are the four ties. Last season the Gophers were 20-8 in the WCHA for 40 points. Now they are 12-6-4.
"Those four ties will probably come back and bite us in the rear end before it is all said and done," Lucia said.
* The Gophers are 12-2-2 at home with a four-game homestand coming up. "We have played well at home," Lucia said. "Adam [goalie Adam Wilcox] has played very well at home. And that needs to continue this weekend against the UMD Bulldogs."
* St. Cloud State is 9-1-1 in WCHA games since mid-December. That one loss was to the Gophers.
Nebraska Omaha has hired Steve Johnson as an assistant hockey coach. He held the same position at St. Cloud State the past two seasons.
Johnson replaces Mike Hastings, who left to become the head coach at Minnesota State Mankato.
“Steve has the ability to be a great recruiter for us," UNO head coach Dean Blais said, "and his on-ice skills as a coach are very strong as shown by his work in both the United States Hockey League and at the college level. His knowledge and experience will make our team stronger. ”
Johnson led the USHL's Fargo Force to the 2010 Clark Cup finals.
UMD FAN EXTRAORDINAIRE DIES
Dick Stewart, 92, one of the biggest fans of the Minnesota Duluth men's hockey team, died on Monday. He was the longtime owner of Stewart's Wheel Goods in Duluth, sponsored many youth sports teams and always attended UMD games whenever he could, according to a story in the Duluth News-Tribune.
LUCIA'S MEDIA LINK SWITCHES SPORTS
Paul Rovnak has a new job at the U.
After two years as the assistant director for athletic communications for men's hockey, Rovnak has been promoted to associate director in the same department and will work with the football team.
As of Monday, he replaced Andy Seeley, who handled media relations and publicity for the Gophers for four years. He left for Central Florida where he will be assistant athletics director for communications.
“Paul has done an outstanding job with Gopher hockey since arriving at the ‘U’," said Garry Bowman. the U's director of athletic communications. "He understands the changing landscape of modern media relations, publicity and social media and has been a terrific addition to our staff. He has earned this opportunity and I am looking forward to see him roll up his sleeves and go to work in this new role.”
Before working with coach Don Lucia and the Gophers hockey team, Rovnak was assistant director of media relations for the Washington Capitals of the NHL for three seasons.
Bowman said that a national search will be conducted to fill in the communications position with Gophers hockey.
MODEL CAMP COMING
Lucia's Model hockey camp will be held next week at Mariucci and Ridder Arenas.
Applicants had to apply by May 10. There were 216 spots open. Players will be divided among 12 teams.
The camp is clearly aimed at the high-end player. Or as one promo on the camp web site reads: "The goal of this camp is to provide exposure to junior, college and NHL scouts. Every team is coached by an active NCAA college coach and every NHL Team and central scouting will be in attendance. Numerous players have gone on to play college hockey and play in the NHL."
Cost of the camp is $375. Let's see, 216 x $375 = $81,000.
The names of those attending have not been released yet on the Model camp web site, but they have been in past years.
* Bemidji State has updated its web site for athletics. It is available at BSUBeavers.com. One of the improvements is a scroll at the bottom of the page with upcoming athletic events.
BSU's web site for athletics is also available on mobile devices now.
The Hobey Baker Memorial Award Foundation announced is three Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalists. They are Jack Connolly, UMD; Spencer Abbott of Maine and Austin Smith of Colgate. All are senior forwards. The winner will be named on Friday of next week during the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla.
Criteria for the awards include outstanding skills. character, sportsmanship and academics. Here is a short bio on each:
* Connolly. Bulldogs captain. Native of Duluth. Top 10 Hobey finalist as a junior. WCHA scoring champion. All-conference three times, player of year in WCHA as a senior. Two-time all-american. Second in nation in points. Had 20 goals, 40 assists for 60 points in 41 games. Played in 164 consecutive games. Undrafted free agent is his pro status.
* Abbott: Recruited walk-on at Maine from Hamilton, Ontario. Player of Year in Hockey East. Led nation in assists and points. Had 21 goals, 41 assists for 62 points in 39 games. Pro hockey free agent recently signed with NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs.
* Smith: Led nation with 36 goals and also had 21 assists for 57 points. Had six short-handed goals and seven power-play goals. Player of year in ECAC. A plus-25. Fifth-round pick of Dallas Stars.
SCSU GOALIE SIGNS WITH PHOENIX
Mike Lee, a junior goalie for St. Cloud State, has signed with the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. He was 8-6-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage this past season.
With five weeks to go, the WCHA race is becoming a bit clearer. Five of the 12 teams remain in realistic contention.
Here are the latest standings
1. Gophers 15-5-0 30 points ... bye week, but will be first no matters what happens this weekend
2. UMD 11-4-3 25 ... slipped up at home last weekend, with only one point for a tie vs. Mich. Tech
3. Denver 10-5-3 23 ... have won 5 in row, get Gophers in two weeks, getting healthy, preseason fave
4. Colo. Col. 11-7-0 22 ... could be hard to climb over three teams
NoDak 11-9-0 22 ... bye week, don't have 2 extra games like other top teams to catch U, out of title chase
6. Neb Omaha 9-6-3 21 ... outside title shot because Mavs finish with Gophers and DU at home
So how will top of WCHA standings look at the end of the regular season? UMD, with an easy schedule, looked like the favorite for the MacNaughton Cup until a 4-4 tie and a 5-0 loss against Michigan Tech at home last weekend.
Here's how I see the WCHA at the finish line:
1. Gophers ... have a bye week and then play four at home, four away. Play at Denver (split), host Bemidji State (sweep), play at Neb. Omaha (split), host Wisconsin (sweep). ... DU is hot, but Gophers are 10-0 on Saturdays in WCHA play. Just need a split to stay in good shape. Bemidji State and Wisconsin both have one road win in conference, so Gophers have to sweep them at Mariucci. No excuses. Dean Blais will have his troops fired up in Omaha, but Gophers should be smelling a title by then and get one win. So Gophers finish 6-2 for a ...
21-7-0 record and 42 points
2. UMD ... Bulldogs have four home and six away games. They are at UAA this weekend (sweep), host North Dakota (split at worst), at MSU Mankato (sweep), host CC (sweep), at St. Cloud State (split at worst if Huskies get healthier) ... UMD actually has a better away record (5-1-2) than home record (6-3-1) in conference games. Six away games won't bother the 'Dogs, so defending NCAA champions finish 8-2 for a ...
19-6-3 record and 41 points
If Gophers and UMD finish in a tie, with the same point totals, the WCHA will call them co-champions. That easily could happen, too.
3. Denver ... five home games, five away, starting with a home and home series with Colorado College (split). Host Gophers (split), at Wisconsin (split), host North Dakota (sweep), at Neb Omaha (split). Pios play three teams in the top six, a tough closing grind ... CC is archrival, and two teams have split two games already. Wisconsin isn't bad on home ice, 6-3-1. UNO is 5-2-1 at home so sweeping there will be hard. So DU will finish 6-4, with splits in four of its last five series and have a ...
16-9-3 and 35 points
4. Colorado College ... five home games, five away, starting with Denver (split). At Bemidji State (sweep), host Nebraska Omaha (split), at UMD (two losses), host Michigan Tech (sweep). ... CC is a solid 7-2-0 at home in the WCHA, but under .500 on the road at 4-5-0. ... Late series at UMD is crucial to Tigers' fate. Not expecting them to fare well there, so CC finishes 6-4 for a ...
17-11-0 record and 34 points
5. Nebraska Omaha ... six home games and four away. Host Bemidji State (sweep), at Michigan Tech (split), at Colorado College (split), host Gophers (split), host Denver (split). ... UNO finishes with three tough teams; all of them will be fighting for favorable playoff spots, so UNO could be a real spoiler. ... See a lot of splits in red Mavs' future, so UNO finishes 6-4 for a ...
15-10-3 record and 33 points
As conference teams move into the stretch run, the Gophers and UMD should battle it out for first based on my analysis, while DU, CC, UNO and North Dakota will battle it out for third place. I didn't break down UND's schedule because they really don't have a good chance to catch the Gophers.
If UND, for instance, finishes 8-0, they team without a nickname would be 19-9 for 38 points. The Gophers can get to 38 points by merely going 4-4 the rest of the way. I predicted the Gophers would finish 6-2. Even if the Gophers slip to 5-3, the reigning MacNaughton Cup champions couldn't catch them.
I'll do a WCHA standings forecast again several times before the regular-season ends. Hopefully, each subsequent prediction will be a little more accurate as the number of games left dwindles. That's the theory, at least.
Coming up later this week:
A lonely cry from an e-mailer to drop the subjective USCHO.com and USA Today rankings in stories in favor of the objective PairWise rankings.
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