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NCAAs Return > Final Five Return?

NCAAs Return > Final Five Return?

Let’s hope the Gophers return to the NCAA Tournament goes just a little bit better than their return to the WCHA Final Five last weekend. The common theme between the two, though, is that to be the last team standing come the end of the weekend, they’ll again need to go through North Dakota, who embarrassed the Gophers last Friday to the tune of a 6-3 score.

After being kept out of the Final Five for the past two seasons, Minnesota returned this year as the field’s No. 1 seed but was disposed of by the red-hot Fighting Sioux after taking a 3-0 lead that held until late in the second period. The Sioux then ran off six unanswered goals and ran the Gophers out of the building. The last time the Gophers won a game at the Final Five was in 2008.

Coincidentally, 2008 was the last time the Gophers made their way into the NCAA Tournament. They were a No. 3 seed that season and were forced to head out east to take on Boston College, the eventual NCAA champions, in their home-state and lost by a 5-2 score. The last time the team won an NCAA Tournament game was in 2007, when they snuck by Air Force 4-3 before having their season ended by North Dakota the next day thanks to a Chris Porter overtime goal than sent the Sioux to the Frozen Four.

Despite last weekend’s meltdown versus the Sioux, both teams return to the Xcel Energy Center this weekend as part of the West Regional. Thanks to their amazing second-half surge, the Sioux are the No. 1 seed in the regional and will take on Western Michigan in the first semifinal on Saturday, while the Gophers take on the third-seeded Boston University Terriers at 4 p.m. that same day. The winners will meet the next day at 4:30 p.m. with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.

To say that this season has been tumultuous for the Terriers would be an understatement. Picked by many to be one of the best teams in college hockey this season, the team got off to a 3-4-1 start before picking up steam and becoming arguably the top team out east through January. However, the midseason departure of sophomore Charlie Coyle to the QMJHL, coupled with a pair of their better players being dismissed from the team due to rape charges, left the team shorthanded down the stretch and their record shows it, having gone 8-8-0 over their final 16 games.

Most recently they won their Hockey East First Round matchup against New Hampshire in three games before dropping a 5-3 contest to Maine in the Hockey East Semifinals.

BU is a team that, despite the in-season losses of key forwards, can score goals. They’ve averaged 4.4 goals per game over the last nine games and, on the season, led Hockey East in scoring offense. They have the conference’s top-ranked power play and also take more penalties than any other HE team. With the second-ranked penalty kill in the conference, it’s safe to say they rely on special teams a great deal just like the Gophers, so that will be a focal point of both teams heading into Saturday’s showdown.

Players to watch out for up front include one-time Gopher recruiting target Shair Gill, who has 31 points, and junior Alex Chiasson, who has 44 points. Sophomore Max Nieto is the team’s other 40-point scorer. Senior Chris Connolly (40 points) is the older brother of UMD’s Jack Connolly and has a NCAA championship to his credit.

On the backend, the power play has been successful due in large part to the play of defenseman Adam Clendening, a Blackhawks draft pick who, as a sophomore, has 31 points in 37 games. Sophomore Garrett Noonan has 26 points, including a whopping 16 goals.

As a whole it’s a very young team, as they have just four seniors on the roster, with one being a backup goalie. The starting goalie though, senior Kieran Millan, is someone that could easily end Minnesota’s season. He backstopped BU to the national championship back in 2009 and has solid numbers so far this season: 20-13-1 record with a .925 save percentage and a 2.53 goals against average.

BU is of course coached by the legendary Jack Parker and he’ll come in with a solid gameplan and have his team ready to play.

And while Don Lucia is no slouch when it comes to head coaches, it’s next to impossible to predict how his team will rebound from the catastrophic final 35 minutes they put on display in last Friday’s loss to the Sioux.

As he noted after the game, it’s a young team that hasn’t been in very many big games over the past three seasons, so how anyone can have a solid handle on how they’ll react when this hit the ice on Saturday afternoon is beyond me.

The team played a near-perfect two periods against the Sioux before the roof caved in. The scored on the power play, allowed hardly any scoring chances, and dominated the play. That of all course turned late in the second and the rest is history, but this team clearly has the ability to win multiple games this weekend and advance to Tampa.

Or they could sh*t the bed on Saturday and tack on another year to the “NCAA winless streak.” Nothing would surprise me and I feel safe in saying that goes for most fans of the Maroon and Gold.

For them to win on Saturday and/or Sunday, they’ll need to get production out of the top two lines. The top unit of Kyle Rau, Zach Budish, and Nick Bjugstad was on fire early in Friday’s loss to the Sioux. Bjugstad doesn’t look healthy thought and you wonder if whatever happened back in the sweep at Nebraska Omaha is still bothering him. And with having the last change at least on Saturday, you’d think the Taylor Matson / Nate Condon duo will lock horns with BU’s top line. Seth Ambroz was his usual average to below-average self last weekend, so one wonders if Nico Sacchetti or another player might take his spot on said line.

And like most weekends, it will probably come down to Kent Patterson being this team’s best player. He can’t be blamed for much of what happened on Friday but he’s going to need to have one of his better games against BU in all likelihood if this team wants to earn another potential shot at the Sioux.

Not that this should be a factor, but you hope the Gophers aren’t looking past BU for a potential rematch against the Sioux. Given BU’s history and prowess, that should help in terms of them not looking ahead.

Written by: Cardinal on Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

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