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.
This is Saturday. So the Gophers better be wary.
Every series this season, they have played better the first game. Last weekend was the most dramatic difference. They beat Vermont 6-0 on Friday, then lost to the Catamounts 5-4 on Sunday. That's a seven-goal swing: Win by six, lose by one.
Will Alaska Anchorage play them tough tonight after losing 5-0 to the Gophers on Friday? Maybe. But Gophers need to figure out a way to win. Going up there, a split seemed acceptable. Now it doesn't. Not if you are clearly more skilled than the opponent.
Here are three keys to Gophers win again tonight against UAA:
1. Score first -- and second. The Gophers got a big goal late in the first period from Erik Haula on Friday and two in the middle of the second from Nick Bjugstad and Mark Alt. They let up a little at the end of the second period and committed several unneeded penatlies at end of third. But scoring first, forces UAA to be aggressive on offense, opening up their defense a bit.
2. Go to the net more. The Gophers only had three power plays on Friday. They need to force UAA to commit more penalties by driving hard to the net as often as possible. The pp is one of the team's strengths -- the Gophers were two for three on it Friday -- they need more power play chances.
3. Play Patterson. That's right. Put him in the nets and don't worry about him. He is playing with a lot of confidence, not giving up many rebounds at all. As long as Kent Patterson is in the nets, the Gophers have a chance.
Two weekends ago, the Gophers swept Minnesota Duluth 5-4 in overtime and 5-4 in regulation. Don't see a decline in play there?. Well, the first night UMD outshot the Gophers 50-44, the second night 50-16. Enough said.
* Early report from Anchorage says Gophers going with same lines as Friday.
What the Gophers are doing so far on the ice is pretty remarkable. They have the national "hat trick" in scoring so far:
* Most points by any player: 17, sophomore center Erik Haula has seven goals and 10 assists in seven games. His 17 points are three more than any other player in NCAA hockey. ... He already has one more goal than last season and is quickly approaching his freshman season points total of 24. And this is still October. ... Strong candidate for National Player of the Month.
* Most points by a rookie: 11, freshman left wing Kyle Rau. It sure looked on the video that he scored the Gophers' second goal on Friday. But officials gave it to Nick Bjugstad. Rau still got two assists, so he has ONLY six goals and five assists for 11 points. That is two points more than any other rookie and one more goal than any other first-year player. He also has three game-winners. ... Strong candidate for National Rookie of the Month.
* Most points by a defenseman: 11, sophomore Nate Schmidt. He picked up two more assists Friday. So his stats line is one goal and 10 assists for 11 points. Not bad considering he had one assist in 13 games last season. ... Would be strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Month if there was such an award. Don't think there is.
And then there is senior goalie Kent Patterson. He is also doing amazing things. His four shutouts are two more than any other goalie. His save percentage of .936 is the seventh-best nationally. He is 6-1-0 and in two of his wins he stopped a career-high 46 shots (out of 50) against UMD. His goal-against average is 1.85.
In this bleak fall-winter sports scene, coach Don Lucia's club could be the one ray of hope this winter. A team that when March arrives is fighting for the WCHA title and not scratching for home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs. That would be fun.
For sure, this team seems to have more offensive punch than the previous four Gophers teams which finished seventh, fifth, seventh and fifth in the WCHA standings. That alone is an exciting thought.
The Gophers hold a 50-19-7 advantage in their all-time series with Alaska Anchorage, but the Seawolves have won four of the last five.
So the Gophers have to take UAA seriously. A 'U' sweep would be great, three points would be good, even a split OK.
Here is what the Gophers have to do to beat the Seawolves:
1) Score first and, preferably second. The Gophers need to get the lead, force the Seawolves out of their game plan. If UAA gets behind, they can't just worry about staying back, preventing odd-man rushes. The Gophers never led the last three times they played UAA, losing 1-0, 4-3 -- after trailing 3-0 -- and 2-0.
2) Play smart. Several freshmen took bad penalties in the last Gophers' game, a 5-4 loss to Vermont. What's a bad penalty? When you get called for hooking and, with an official a few away, cross-check the same player. Now your teammates have to kill four minutes.
Another example of a bad penalty is if you are the victim of a boarding call with your team short-handed. Now the other team's power play is over and your team will get a chance to go on the power play when it expires. But you decide to retaliate and, again with an official right there, push the Vermont player with both hands.
Clean up the after the whistle stuff. The Gophers have the nation's best power play and had only four power play chances the last game. Too few.
3. Get pucks to the net. When these teams met last March in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, UAA blocked 25 shots in each game. Way to many. Move the puck around, fake shots, find seams, don't telegraph your shots. Put pressure on the UAA goalie, make him make a couple stops in a row. Draw penalties.
One defenseman not on the team any longer had nine shots blocked alone. It was hard to watch those playoff games.
Sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said the Gophers remember Alaska Anchorage sweeping them last March in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
"All of the guys, we are looking forward to this weekend," he said. "These are the guys that knocked us out last year. This is a big weekend for us."
UAA beat the Gophers 4-3 and 2-0 at Mariucci Arena, ending Minnesota's season. Had the Gophers won, based on what else happened in college hockey, they probably would have made the NCAA tournament.
"It stings a lot for a lot of us from last year," Schmidt said. "This is probably one of our biggest weekends. Obviously, each week is big [in the WCHA].
"[But] for this team to do to us what they did last year, [this series] is a key mark in our moving foward."
The Gophers are tied with six other teams for first place in the WCHA standings with four points. They earned those points with a sweep of UMD two weekends ago. Three of those teams have played four conference games, four have played two including the 'U'.
Then there are five teams, including UAA, tied for eighth place with no points after two games.
There should be a little more separation after this weekend because there are five WCHA series.
Don Lucia's Gophers team have been very successful playing games at Alaska Anchorage. They are 13-3-2 in nine trips there in Lucia's time at the 'U'.
"We have had good teams, it starts there," said Lucia, in the middle of his 13th season as the Gophers coach. "But what happens in the past has no bearing on the present. We've got very few players who have even played up there or even made the trip when you look at our roster because we didn’t go there last year.
"None of our freshmen or sophomores have been there. We only have one junior [defenseman Seth Helgeson] and a handful of seniors, so this will be the first trip for a lot of these kids."
The Gophers' leading scorer against UAA is senior winger Jake Hansen with two goals and one assist for three points. Four other players have two points against the Seawolves, four one point.
Kent Patterson had a solid 2.04 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage against the Seawolves last season but was 1-3-0.
"It is obviously a beautiful place, but we don’t have time to go on sightseeing trips," said Lucia, who was the Alaska Fairbanks head coach from 1987-93. "I enjoyed my week [vacation there] this summer fishing and getting around the state in July. I had a great time. But we get in Thursday afternoon, we play Friday and Saturday nights and come back Sunday morning. It is a quick trip,"
Lucia said the biggest problem playing games in Alaska is the three-hour time change. "You have the [six-hour] flight, but even that it is a direct flight for us. So it is not a big deal. The hard part for us is just the time change. ... The games are starting at 10 [p.m. CDT] and then you get up and your clock is a little bit off."
"Anchorage is a much better team" than in years past, Lucia said. "They had a great end of the year last year. Their program has been getting better every year. They have a very veteran team right now."
In the first round of the WCHA playoffs last March, the Seawolves beat the Gophers 4-3 and 2-0 and blocked 50 shots, four out of 10, over the weekend.
"You have to keep shooting [against them], that is No. 1," Lucia said. "We didn’t see anything different watching their video against [Nebraska] Omaha. They are going to lay down and block shots. That is just part of their identity, and so it is difficult to get pucks through."
UNO got enough through to sweep the Seawolves 4-1 and 3-1 in Omaha last weekend.
"We have to try to win games that are going to be lower scoring, 3-2 type of games. We are not going to go up there and score a bunch of goals. They don’t give you a lot. They are very disciplined, they don’t take a lot of penalties. and they are veteran basically in every position, so it will be a good test for our group."
power play 36.3 18.2
penalty kill 87.9 79.2
goals per game 5.83 3.17
goals-against 2.17 2.67
shots per game 37.5 32.0
penalties per gm 8.2 4.8
UAA sophomore goalie Chris Kamal wasn't playing much until he shut out the Gophers 1-0 on Jan. 29, then he beat them twice more in the playoffs.
"He played very well against us last year," Lucia said. "But [Rob] Gunderson is back too. They have some experience there. We are just trying to get better. It is early in the season. We talked about this [being] Game 3 and 4 in the league, all on the road. [The Gophers swept Minnesota Duluth in their first two WCHA games.] We are grateful we put some points in the bank up in Duluth from our first road trip.
"We played pretty well on the road. I am looking forward to getting on road with this group, too."
The Gophers were 7-4-3 on the road last season, averaging 3.57 goals per game.
* The only time the Seawolves have ever swept the Gophers in Anchorage was Nov. 14-15, 1997 when Doug Woog was the 'U' coach. The score of both games was 3-2.
* Friday is Wells Fargo Key Chain Night at Sullivan Arena, Saturday is Trick-or-Treat Night with the Seawolves
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