January is an interesting month for University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.
It kicks off with leading Team USA, and Minnesota players Brady Skjei and Hudson Fasching, in the 2014 World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden. Following that, the Gophers travel to Penn State for the first-ever Big Ten series in Pegula Arena. The next weekend sees Minnesota host Ohio State outdoors in front of 50,000 people at TCF Bank Stadium for the Hockey City Classic. The weekend after that is the inaugural North Star College Cup, in which four Minnesota schools will vie for in-state bragging rights.
However, that doesn't include this weekend's Mariucci Classic.
That task, instead, is left up to associate head coach Mike Guentzel and assistant coach Grant Potulny along with the rest of the top-ranked Gophers (12-2-2, 3-0-1-0 Big Ten). The in-season tournament also features the second-ranked team in the country, Ferris State and ECAC teams Colgate and RPI coming to town.
For Guentzel, this weekend, playing with only five defensemen as Jake Parenteau broke his leg against Michigan State and Skjei is off on international duty (the US lost yesterday to Russia in the WJC quarterfinals) presents a challenge. He is trying to keep things simple for Minnesota as it prepares to play without the head coach.
"Just try to keep it on the tracks this week. Hopefully we can keep playing and we're trying to implement some new guys in some new spots. Obviously Brady and Hudson being gone creates opportunities for other guys," Guentzel said. "We're going to do our best to move some guys in some spots and give them a chance to grow."
For his players, Guentzel's is a slight adjustment. The associate head coach, who has spent two long stints with Minnesota, has a different style in terms of getting Gopher players to do their best, but there are plenty of similarities.
"It's pretty similar. Guentzel is running the show now and everyone has a lot of respect for him," sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly said. "He's an honest guy and he is always helping us. He is running the forwards a little more too. Usually he does more of the D, but he's taking over here and Potulny is doing a great job as well. We're looking forward to the weekend and just trying to get our legs out from under us and get the flow back."
Friday's 7 p.m. CT game against Colgate will be broadcast on Fox Sports North. Saturday's 7 p.m. game against either RPI or #2 Ferris State will be broadcast by BTN.
The winner of the first semifinal face the winners of the second and the same is true for the two losers.
This weekend's games come after a 27 day layoff for Minnesota. It's the longest one senior co-captain Nate Condon can remember and he feels like he is ready to go and shake off the rust.
"Just a feeling," he said. "I had my time off and I'm not someone who likes time off."
Semifinal #1: RPI vs. Ferris State (4 p.m. CT on gophersports.com)
The first semifinal, beginning at 4 p.m. CT on Friday, pits #2 Ferris State against the nation's top goal scorer in Ryan Haggerty.
The Bulldogs,the national college hockey runners-up in 2012, enter this weekend leading the WCHA and on a 15 game unbeaten streak. Ferris State (14-2-3, 10-0-2 WCHA) recently tied and shut out a pair of Big Ten foes in Michigan and Michigan State, respectively. (The Wolverines won a shootout that, in the end, meant nothing.) One key reason for FSU's success, besides scoring and defending well (are in the top-ten of both categories) has been junior goaltender C.J. Motte.
Motte, who has yet to lose this season in 17 games, currently has a .927 save percentage and has given up just 8 goals in his last 6 games. He was honored by being named the National Player of Month for December.
The Engineers, meanwhile, are sixth in the ECAC and last played December 13-14 against Denver where the Pioneers beat and tied RPI on the road. Junior goaltender Scott Diebold has been fantastic, with a GAA just below Motte at 2.17 (the two actually are sandwiching Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox) as the team looks to build confidence before returning to ECAC play.
However, all eyes are on Haggerty, who has 26 points and leads the nation in goals with 18. That includes a nation-high 8 power play goals for RPI, which has made teams pay on special teams. The Engineers are 18th in the nation in power play percentage (21.43%) and defenseman Guy Lebouef has a pair of shorthanded goals.
Besides Haggerty, two others - Brock Higgs and Matt Neal - are averaging more than a point per game.
The RPI-Ferris State game, as well as the other 4 p.m. CT Saturday contest, will be streamed online at gophersports.com. Tickets are good for both games.
Semifinal #2 - Colgate vs. Minnesota (7 p.m. CT - Fox Sports North)
Colgate (7-9-2, 5-3-1 ECAC), Minnesota's Friday opponent, are coming off being swept by UMass and has done better on the road this season than at home. The Raiders, led by a quintet of sophomore forwards, including Mike Borkowski's 18 points, have wins over both top-ten Ferris State and Union this season. If they are able to make it a hat trick against a depleted Gopher team, Colgate is going to need to shut down the potent Gopher offense.
Minnesota enters this weekend second in the nation in goals per game (3.94). While Fasching (14 points) is gone, it might not be a bad thing. Teams recently have been focusing upon the top line of Kyle Rau, Sam Warning and Fasching and shutting it down as other lines stepped up in their place. The change presents new opportunities.
Even better, the Raiders are 48th (of 59 teams) in total defense. That includes four games in which the opponent has scored 5 or more goals. (Minnesota has done that six times this season.)
In addition to Lucia, Skjei and Fasching, senior forward Tom Serratore is a game-time decision for Minnesota. He missed the Michigan State series after suffering a lower leg injury in practice the week before and was expected to miss a month.
Freshman Vinni Lettieri, who also missed the Michigan State series, is healthy and ready to go according to Guentzel.
Still, the biggest question mark for Minnesota is putting just five defensemen on the ice. Guentzel stated that most guys like to play with five defensemen in order to get more playing time, but he did acknowledge that Minnesota would need to stay out the box in order to not overwork the blue liners.
"We've had 5 D for a few games this year," said Reilly, who leads the Big Ten in goals by a defenseman with 7. "It's a little bit of an adjustment doing that, but you just have to...not pace yourself, pick your spots better offensively, not jump in every time, make smart plays, get the puck to your forwards and let them do the work.
With the exception of Ferris State, which Minnesota faced in the 2010 Mariucci Classic, all three opponents are new to this group of Gophers.
"We're looking forward to the challenge with 5 D for the whole weekend. We're obviously looking forward to getting Brady back in a week or two."
"It's fun for us facing new opponents," Condon said. "Anytime you can face someone you've never played before it can be kind of interesting, because you never you know what to expect. You have to focus more on your game and get yourself ready for it because you don't necessarily know what to expect. There's only so much video you can go over and prepare for a team.
"Right now you just focus on what you can do and go from there."