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.
Three keys for the Gophers to beat Niagara:
1. Pressure, pressure. Put sustained pressure on Niagara's goalie. The Gophers need to use their speed advantage on the big ice at Mariucci.
2. Get balanced scoring. With the team's top two scorers gone, everyone has to try and chip in with the goals,. The power play will be different , too, with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau gone. Keep firing shots.
3. Get a lead and build on it. Don't give an underdog hope. The WCHA is 9-0 against Atlantic Hockey teams. Make sure it is 10-0 by the end of the night.
1st line/ Sam Warning-Erik Haula-Jake Hansen. ... Haula has nine goals, Hansen eight. Time for one of them to reach double figures. Warning seems stuck on three.
2nd line/ Nate Condon-Taylor Matson-Seth Ambroz. ... Could use a goal from this intact line tonight, too.
3rd line/ Nick Larson-Christian Isackson-Zach Budish. ... Budish drops down from top line. Isackson playing only sixth game, still looking for first point as a Gopher.
4th line/ Tom Serratore-Nico Sacchetti-Joe Miller. ... Sacchetti playing sixth game, Miller second. Miller scored a goal in his first game, Dec. 10, a 6-2 Gophers rout of Michigan Tech.
Seth Helgeson-Justin Holl
Ben Marshall-Mark Alt
Jake Parenteau-Nate Schmidt
Kent Patterson ... 42nd start in row going back to last season
"Tech is off to a great start with their new coach," Gophers coach Don Lucia said, referring to Mel Pearson. "He wants to play a much more pressure-based system. They had a good nucleus of returning players. Three of their top four scorers were freshmen. [Jordan] Baker didn't play last year with an injury. He is one of their top scorers. [Brett] Olson only played half their games, he is one of their top scorers as a senior.
"They have some guys who can put the puck in the net. And more than anything else, that is what has been missing from their program the last number of years. But now they are scoring."
Tech is tied for sixth place in the WCHA this season after finishing last the past three seasons.
"They basically had three freshman forwards who had 20 points, which is an outstanding freshman year," Lucia said. "Well, now they are sophomores. And a couple of freshman have come in and scored again. They have six guys who have scored five goals or more so far this year. So they are off to a great start."
Sophomore Milos Gordic leads Tech in goals with seven.
And Gordic, a 6-5, 210 sophomore center, is one of those freshmen who put up numbers last season. He tied for the team scoring lead. He are the three freshmen who were among Tech's top four scorers:
1. (tie) F Gordic 15-6-21
1. (tie) F Ryan Furne, 6-2, 215 12-9--21
4. F Jacob Johnstone, 5-11, 190 4-15--19
OTHER TECH STRENGHTS
"Their specialty teams have been very strong," Lucia said, "and they are getting a great performance from their senior goaltender [Josh Robinson]."
The Huskies have scored 15 power plays and fiven up 14, so they are a plus-one.
Robinson is 7-5-1 with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage -- third best in the WCHA.
"They are off to a great start," Lucia said. "They have taken advantage of some of their home games [6-3-1]. Their crowds are coming back, so it is great for their program."
BJUGSTAD CINCH FOR WORLD JUNIORS
Lucia said forwards Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau still have to go through the U.S. tryout camp for the World Junior Championships, but he expects Bjugstad to make the cut down from 29 to 22. The camp starts Dec. 17 in Camrose, Alberta, just outside Edmonton.
"Kyle probably has a little bit of work to do when he gets up there to make sure he impresses the coaches," Lucia said. "But both of them are deserving. Both have had outstanding seasons for us this year. Both of them are terrific teams players and you need that for a short tournament environment. They will be willing to accept whatever role given [them].
"Both would represent our country tremendously."
Rau's versatility -- he can play on the power play and penalty kill -- should help his chances of making the team. USA head coach Dean Blais, who also coaches Nebraska Omaha, is looking for players capable of fitting into several roles.
Rau has played left wing for the Gophers, but he could play center in a pinch, too. He was a center all his life.
The Gophers will be without Bjugstad and possibly Rau, just for their two games in the Mariucci Classic on Dec. 30 and 31.
"It will give a couple of other players who maybe haven't had a chance to play much to show what they can do," Lucia said.
THE DON SAYS
* On surging UMD which has a 12-game unbeaten streak (10-0-2): "They are going to be a force the second half of the season, so we are glad we are finished with them right now."
* On freshman forward Seth Ambroz, who broke a long dry spell with a goal last Saturday: "We made a very difficult decision to take him out of the lineup on Saturday [at Michigan State two weekends ago]. We told him we did that because sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward. We told him we thought it would be good for him just to sit up and watch a game and hopefully relax a little bit.
"He came back, had a great week of practice and it was nice to see him get rewarded. We have seen him perform in practice. It has not necessarily carried forth during the game. But he got rewarded [last] Saturday which was good to see."
* On 13-4-1- record so far: "We are sitting in great shape, but at the same time it is not even Christmas. There is a lot of hockey to be played. We have a very difficult second-half schedule within the league. ... As long as we can stay healthy and Kent [goalie Kent Patterson] continues to play like he has, we will be in good shape at the end."
Trivia question: If the Gophers had to win one faceoff, who would you put out there? The answer is at the bottom of this post.
SO FAR, SO GOOD
The Gophers are ranked No. 2 in both national polls this week and continue to sit atop the WCHA standings, although by just one point over Minnesota Duluth.
So are they satisfied with their first half -- after this weekend, they will have played 14 of their 28 conference games?
"There is much more to do," sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said. "Obviously, we'd be happy where we are in the standings.
"With the way we have played in the first half, there is a lot of room for improvement. We had the good stretch in the beginning of the year. We want to get back to that -- those winning ways when we had those good weekends back to back to back. Just continue to move forward as a team."
The Gophers began the season 9-1 and, in that stretch, had five- and four-game winning streaks and rose from oblivion (among the unranked in one major poll) to the nation's No. 1 team for two weeks. They are on a modest three-game unbeaten streak now (2-0-1).
"Like coach Guentzel [associate head coach Mike Guentzel] always says, 'If you are not getting better, you are getting worse.' We just want to continue to get better each weekend," Schmidt said.
Schmidt is fifth on the Gophers in scoring with one goal and 17 assists for 18 points, most on the power play. He is first among defensemen in points by a big margin; sophomore Mark Alt is second with two goals and six assists for eight points.
TECH A CHALLENGE
Michigan Tech, the Gophers opponent this weekend, has had some big wins this seasons, especially at home. The Huskies swept Wisconsin early this year.
"They are much different," said Schmidt, referring to a Tech team that was last in the WCHA the past three seasons. "A lot of their leading scorers last year were freshmen guys. I played against some of those guys in the USHL. They are good players. They have the new coach [Mel Pearson] in there this year. They really have turned the program around. They are doing a lot of good things. Had a good start this season.
"They had a little rough spot there. But they are coming back. They are playing good hockey right now. It is fun to play a good team going into the break. You know where you stand at the end of the first half."
After Saturday, coach Don Lucia is giving his player time off until Dec. 26 although most of them skate or work out a bit on their own. Next week is finals week at the 'U,' always a busy time.
The Gophers' next games are Dec. 30 and 31 when they play in the Mariucci Classic. Their first opponent will be Niagara. Their second opponent will e either Northeastern or Princeton.
HOME SWEET HOME
The Gophers are 8-1-0 at home this season. And that's quite an improvement from the last two seasons.
:"One of our goals at the start of the year with coach Lucia, the coaching staff and our team was that, we wanted to protect home ice as much as possible," Schmidt said. "It has gotten away from us the past couple of years. Not playing well at home. That is one of the biggest things, getting in front of home fans and performing the way we can."
Last season the Gophers were 9-10-3 at home and in 2009-10 they were 10-9-1, not much better. The last time the Gophers had a good record at Mariucci was when the present seniors were freshmen. That season, 2008-09, the Gophers were 11-5-6 and one could argue that's too many ties.
Schmidt said one reason for this season's good record is the team's approach to home games: The Gophers have tried to put "a better product on the ice than what we have seen the past couple of years by working hard and blocking shots. We kind of changed our mentality over the past couple of years."
Answer: For one faceoff, the best Gopher would be Zach Budish, a 6-3 right winger. He has won 17 of 23 draws, or 73.9 percent. Only defenseman Justin Holl has a better success rate and he doesn't count. He has taken just one faceoff.
The Gophers play at Michigan State at 6 p.m. today in the first game of two. The Spartans have been stingy defensively, giving up two goals per game in going 5-1 their past six games.
Still, the Gophers power play has rebounded lately and they are averaging more than four goals per game. The Mariucci-Bessone Trophy is at stake. So on the road ... Gophers win and tie.
There are three WCHA series this weekend:
* St. Cloud State at Nebraska Omaha. Unusual Saturday-Sunday series. UNO could tie Gophers for first place with a sweep. But the Huskies are pesky, getting at least two points against all four conference foes they have played. SCSU freshman Ryan Faragher is also a pretty good goalie. So the Maericks and the Huskies will ... Split.
* Colorado College at North Dakota. CC, with its high-powered offense, could gain on two leaders with a big weekend. Fighting Sioux are mired in a tie for 10th with Minnesota State Mankato. With smooth freshman Rocco Grimaldi out with a lower body injury, UND will have trouble staying with their visitors, so this is hard to write but ... CC sweeps
* Alaska Anchorage at Minnesota State Mankato. Seawolves are 12th in conference, Mavericks are tied for 10th. Battle to stay out of cellar. UAA has had trouble scoring, the Mavericks have had trouble keeping their players healthy. ... Split
* Princeton at Denver on Friday and Miami at Denver on Saturday in Denver Cup. ... DU sweeps
* Michigan Tech at St. Lawrence. Huskies are a much better team at home. Both teams started this season well but have struggled of late. ... Split
* Mercyhurst at Wisconsin. Badgers are only 5-8-1 overall. Mercyhurst is in first place in Atlantic Hockey but has a 6-5-1 overall mark. Going with the WCHA here ... Badgers sweep
I am on a roll in picking WCHA games. I was 7-1-1 last week, 8-3-1 the week before. It's doubtful I can keep that up. But let's try:
* Gophers at St. Cloud State on Fri., SCSU at Gophers Sat.: It has been well-chronicled that two of the Huskies three captains are out indefinitely. Forward Drew LeBlanc is healing from two broken bones in one of his legs, goalie Mike Lee from hip surgery. SCSU says in a couple weeks, it will be known whether they can return this season. Lee said chances are slim.
But Huskies are regrouping, getting points every WCHA weekend. The Gophers learned a lesson last Friday. Came out flat against Wisconsin on Friday and were almost shut out. Should be ready this weekend. ... Gophers sweep
* Minnesota State Mankato at Minnesota Duluth: Bulldogs play better on the road, but they are on a roll. Unbeaten in last eight games (6-0-2). And goalie Kenny Reiter has earned WCHA defensive player of the week honors two weeks in a row. Mavericks split with St. Cloud State last weekend. ... Bulldogs sweep
* Nebraska Omaha at Denver: Big series between two teams who expect to be WCHA title contenders. DU is 8-3 all-time vs. Mavericks, 6-0 in Denver. These are second and third games of a seven-game homestand for Pios. Their special teams have not played well. ... Terry Broadhurst and Matt White both have 17 points, which ties them for third in WCHA scoring. Mavs have had 40 shots or more in five of their past seven games. ... Split
* Wisconsin at Colorado College: The Badgers like to pick their spots to attack or counter-punch. They will probably try to do to CC what they did to the Gophers last Friday. Slow the game down, limit the shots, stay back. Jaden Schwartz of the TIgers has a 13-game points streak going back to last season. CC has at least one power play goal in six games in a row. ... Tigers sweep
* Michigan Tech at Alaska Anchorage: UAA is 6-1-3 in its last 10 games against Tech. And the Seawolves desperately need a win because their 0-6-0 start in WCHA games is their worst in 19 years. They have been outscored 23-4 in those six games. Senior Brett Olson of Superior lead the Huskes in points with 12 on four goals and eight assists. Tech has played much better at home. Anchorage is far away from Houghton. ... Split
* North Dakota at Bemidji State in Sat.-Sun. series: The Beavers are 0-16-1 against North Dakota since they moved up to Division I. A Disney show on Friday at Sanford Center is the reason this series is starting a day later than usual. Last season the Fighting Sioux, who were idle last weekend, swept the Beavers 5-2, 5-1 in the first series ever played in BSU's new arena. ...Sioux win, tie
TRACKING MY RECENT PICKS (counting ties as one-half win, one-half loss)
Week 3 8 - 3-1/2 - 1/2
Week 4 7 - 3-1/2 - 1-1/2
Week 5 8 - 3 - 1
Week 6 7 - 1 - 1
Week 7 ? - ? - ?
Totals 30 - 11 - 4 for winning percentage of 74.4 percent
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