Joe the Lawyer, a Gophers fan from St. Paul, and I pick the WCHA games again this week. Let's start with the Gophers, fresh off an emotional series with the team formerly nicknamed the Fighting Sioux:
Minnesota State (15-8-3, 9-1) vs. Gophers (17-3-4, 9-3-4), at Mariucci on Friday, at Verizon Wireless Center on Saturday at Mariucci
Roman says: The numbers speak volumes about the kind of season the Gophers are having on the ice. They are in the top five in the nation in three important categories: No. 1 in scoring, 3.88 goals per games; No. 3 in defense, giving up 1.88 goals per game; No. 4 on the power play, .241, and No. 5 on the penalty kill, .899. ... They are unbeaten in their last 10 games (8-0-2) and are 12-1-4 since they split with Minnesota State in early November. That one loss was to Nebraska Omaha 3-2 on Nov. 30. ... Three players have 10 or more goals: linemates Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau lead the team with 13 and Erik Haula has 10. The hottest Gopher, Nate Condon, has six in the past seven games, giving him nine. ... Freshman Adam Wilcox has been steady in the nets, 1.71 GAA, .923 save percentage.
But the Mavericks could push the Gophers this weekend. They beat the U 5-3 in Mankato on Nov. 3 and are 6-4-0 against them in their last 10 meetings. And ex-Gophers assistant Mike Hastings will light a fire under his players, forget their 9-32-6 all-time record against their big brother from the Cities. ... The Mavericks have some firepower. Senior forward Eriah Hayes has 12 goals, seven on the power play to rank second in the land. Sophomore forward matt Leitner has 10 goals. .... Freshman goalie Stephon Williams has stabilized that position. He has a 1.80 GAA and .925 save mark. ... Penalty killers have been awesome, MSU has given up one power-play goal in nine games. ... Mavericks are tied for sixth in the conference. PICK: Split
Joe says: Here we have two teams squarely in the WCHA chase, with Minnesota tied for the conference lead at 22 points and Minnesota State just three points out.
Minnesota State comes in being led by a dynamic sophomore class, who have combined for 84 points on the year. Matt Leitner and J.P. Lafontaine have combined for 53 points, and sophomore D-man Zach Palmquist has chipped in 18 points. The Mavs also get production in net from their underclassmen, since making the switch from senior Phil Cook to freshman Stephon Williams. Williams has been an anchor for the Mavs on the back end, giving up less than 2 goals/game and stopping .925% of the shots he sees. Of concern for the Mavs (especially against Minnesota) will be their inability to stay out of the penalty box. They have taken the third most penalties this year, but have also killed penalties well (84%).
The Gophers go into this one sitting tied for first and coming off a solid weekend, albeit shaky at times, at home against North Dakota. In similar ways, the Gophers have been lauded in so many ways, including a #1 ranking in the polls, and statistically, it is deserved. They have not lost since November 30, and since then have scored 4.7 goals per game, including wins against BC, Notre Dame, North Dakota and Air Force. They have the league's best power play (25.64%) and a top 3 offense and defense. In particular, Minnesota has been bolstered by the solid play of Nate Condon, who has found the net in six of his last seven games, Nick Bjugstad (25 points), and Sam Warning, who is riding a seven-game point streak, dating back to December. Most impressive about the Gophers is their ability to continually generate offense from many different sources. Adam Wilcox had a shaky Saturday vs. UND, but has been the primary reason this team has played as well as it has. A concern for the Gophers continues to be defensive zone turnovers and breakdowns. Despite solid stats on their team defense, this team can get careless in it's own zone and that has led directly to goals on many occasions.
Both teams have a lot to play for this weekend and the Mavs have seemed to have the Gophers number over the last few years. For the Gophers, if we learned anything against North Dakota, its how difficult it is to sweep a conference rival in the WCHA. Yet, the Gophers have proven week in and week out how talented they can be and have avoided those "bad" weekends. I think that continues in this series. PICK: Gophers win and tie.
St. Cloud State (14-10-0, 11-5-0) at North Dakota (13-7-4, 8-4-4)
Roman says: The Huskies are tied for first with the Gophers in the WCHA with 22 points, but would have the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs if the season ended right now based on more conference wins. ... The Huskies are coming off an impressive sweep of Denver, 5-2, 5-1, which concluded a 10-game homestand. Coach Bob Motzko got his 150th career win and 100th WCHA win last weekend. ... Junior Nic Dowd and freshman Kalle Kossila have 11 goals to lead the team, both are forwards. .... Senior forward Drew LeBlanc has 27 assists and a 13-game points streak. ... UND had a tough weekend at Mariucci, losing 5-1 and then tying 4-4 after having a 4-2 lead in the third period. ... Senior linemates Corban Knight and Danny Kristo are both having strong years. Knight has a 19-game points streak during which he has nine goals and 22 assists. PICK: UND win and a tie
Joe says: In a conference race as tight as the WCHA, any team in the hunt is just one bad weekend away from falling apart. The teams from North Dakota and St. Cloud are separated by just two points, with the lower team squarely in the PairWise discussion (UND) and the team tied for first on the bubble (SCSU). You get the idea: it's a big series for both teams.
North Dakota comes off a one-point weekend at Mariucci, and although Dave Hakstol is saying all the right things about his squad ("they took a step forward," "I liked what I saw from some guys"), you can't help but hear the damage control after a disappointing weekend. Indeed, it is easy to see what Hakstol might have liked. Rocco Grimaldi may have to sit in a booster seat when the team goes out for Chinese buffet, but the kid can fly. He had two big points on Saturday night (including a goal), and came within a pipe or two of ending it in overtime. But for much of the weekend, the team lacked the old Siou - er - North Dakota energy. Yes, the games were close for much of the weekend, but a Friday night loss, followed up with a Saturday night collapse can't feel good in Grand Forks.
St. Cloud on the other hand heads out on the road after a home sweep of another team currently falling apart (Denver). The Huskies outscored the Pioneers 10-3 in a series that really wasn't close. Ryan Faragher played well in goal, and the Huskies continued to get scoring from the entire squad (points from 11 different kids on Friday, eight on Saturday). Additionally, St. Cloud doesn't give up a lot of even strength or power play goals within conference play, and they generally stay out of the box. This series may have as much intensity as was expected from the Minnesota - North Dakota series the weekend before, as I think North Dakota gets more than a point this weekend, but not a sweep. Both teams have a lot to play for. PICK: Split
Nebraska Omaha (13-9-2, 9-5-2) at Bemidji State (5-12-5, 4-8-4)
Roman says: The Beavers always give UNO problems. But maybe not this weekend. BSU is in an 0-4-2 skid. They can't score. Aaron McLeod has a team-high nine goals; Brance Orban (5-11-16) leads the Beavers in points. ... They have been outshot in 16 of 22 games and average 7.5 fewer shots than their opponents. Their power play was 0-for-11 in a one-point weekend at Michigan Tech in their last WCHA series. ... They are 0-7-3 on Fridays. Ouch. And the Beavers have only eight third-period goals in 16 WCHA games. ... All that said, they tied UNO 3-3 and beat the Mavericks 3-2 in Omaha on Oct. 26-27. ... Nebraska Omaha is averaging 3.67 goals per game, third best in the nation. Junior forward Ryan Walters of Rosemount has 15 goals and 36 points to rank first in both categories in Division I hockey. ... Sophomore forward Josh Archibald of Brainerd has 13 goals and 23 points, which ties him for second in scoring on the team. ... Omaha is coming off a bye weekend. ... The Mavericks lead the WCHA with six shorthanded goals, one in each of their past three games. ... PICK: Split
Joe says: Coming off an idle weekend, UNO heads to Lake Bemidji for what's suddenly become an important weekend for them. Of course, the story for the Mavs has been Ryan Walters and his NCAA leading point total. Or how he has had at least one point in every weekend series this year (except against - gulp - Bemidji State!). Or his 11 multi-point games. Or his kind way of tying ties for his freshmen teammates and not making them feel bad about it. Either way, there's got to be a little bit of "Walters Walters Walters" going through the heads of Josh Archibald (23 points), Dominic Zombo (23 points) or Matt White (22 points), who have all quietly made this team - along with Mr. Walters not so quietly - into the best scoring offense in the WCHA. UNO will have much to play for on the road - where they've struggled (3-6-1 on the road), as they sit just two points out of first.
Bemidji State returns home after losing and tying up in Houghton. The story for the Beavers this year has been an inability to finish things without the extra session or score goals. They've played to OT at least once in every weekend for four straight, and during that stretch have scored 4 power play goals in 29 opportunities. Seeing a pattern here? It's clear that the Beavers can hang with teams but ugly power play numbers help show that they just don't have the guns to put teams away. They are playing at home, where they've beaten Denver (and well, that's about it), and UNO struggles on the road. The Mavs are in the thick of the race, but I think BSU is due. PICK: Split
Alaska Anchorage (3-14-5, 1-13-4) at Wisconsin (9-8-5, 6-5-5)
Roman says: The Badgers swept the Seawolves 5-3, 1-0 in Anchorage the first weekend of January. And Wisconsin was on a 8-0-3 unbeaten streak until losing 2-1 to Miami on Saturday. ... Wisconsin has won 13 games in a row over UAA in Madison. ... The Seawolves sit in last place in the WCHA and have a 10-game winless streak. Often they play just bad enough to lose. Freshman forward Blake Tatchell is the team's leading scorer (4-9-13). UAA has to win again sometime and all streaks end, so ... PICK: Split
Joe says: The worst power played in the conference, we'll call her "Becky Badger" meets the worst penalty kill in the conference, named, uh,"Greg Seawolf." It's the classic odd couple in this series (CW network, take note, I hear a role for Steve Harvey), and it's left me scratching my head.
On one hand, UAA scores less than two goals per game in the WCHA, gives up better than three per game, has the second worst power play, which is only outdone by their penalty kill, which is last in the league. They do not have any skater in the top 50 in scoring in the WCHA, and they have not won since Dec. 1. Their one asset, a home rink that's a pain to get to for everyone else, goes away in this series. Nice plot premise huh?
Our other lead role, Becky Badger, comes in with some baggage of her own. Wisconsin scores just over two goals per game within the conference, has the worst WCHA power play, has just three players with better than 10 points, and none over 20. The twist? The Badgers also have the best defense in the conference, led by two sophomore goaltenders in Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel, who have better than .920 in combined save percentage. Their defenseman are quietly solid in their own end, where John Ramage and Jake McCabe don't score much but don't give up much either. On the whole, the Badgers have been playing much better hockey as of late, losing only once since November 24.
The question remains: who wins? Sure, UW's a great defensive team with no offense and UAA's a terrible defensive team with no offense. UAA doesn't kill penalties well and UW doesn't score power play goals. Are they televising this? In my mind, this match-up sounds like an epic death struggle, from which neither team can escape. In reality, this is more like two blind, thumbless men struggling to gain leverage in the most boring Thumb War ever. At the end of the day though, UW is playing better lately and remains in conference chase. The network's might not pick up this The network's might not pick up this pilot, but this one goes to UW all the same. PICK: UW sweeps (with less than five goals scored).
That's all folks. Three of the other four WCHA teams --- Colorado College, Denver and Michigan Tech -- have the weekend off. Minnesota Duluth has only an exhibition game. The Bulldogs play the U18 U.S. national team at home on Saturday.
Points streak, individuals
19 Corban Knight, North Dakota
16 Erik Haula, Gophers
13 Drew LeBlanc, St. Cloud State
Unbeaten streaks, team
10 Gophers are on an 8-0-2 run
Winless streaks, team
10 Alaska Anchorage is on an 0-9-1 slide