One of the toughest challenges for Minnesota (17-3-4, 9-3-4 WCHA) entering an eight-game homestand following the holiday break was getting through it in one piece. The top-ranked Gophers faced a trio of opponents ranked in the top-6 between Boston College, Notre Dame and North Dakota (for the final time in the WCHA) in a series of challenging games. What could have been a midseason swoon has instead into one of the better stretches in recent memory.
Now only an in-state rival stands between Minnesota going 8-0 at Mariucci Arena since December 29.
Coming off of a three-point weekend against North Dakota, Minnesota faces #14 Minnesota State (15-8-3, 9-8-1 WCHA) in a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday. The Gophers and St. Cloud State are tied for first in the WCHA with 22 points (the Huskies have played 2 more games) but the league is close enough a sweep by the sixth-place Mavericks would put them ahead.
With so much on the line, it isn't hard to imagine excitement in Mariucci Arena Friday and Verizon Wireless Center Saturday.
"I believe the fans are pumped up for the big games," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia following the intense crowd atmosphere of the North Dakota series. "Obviously when Boston College and Notre Dame came there were good atmospheres and that's why you want to schedule teams like that because our fans want to see good hockey.
The two teams played earlier this year with each winning at home. The Gophers won 3-2 on Friday on the strength of a trio of power play goals before the scene shifted 75 miles south to Mankato. Once there, Minnesota State got out to a quick 2-0 lead en route to a dominant 5-3 win Saturday.
One thing the Mavericks did well in their early November series was play with a lead. While the Gophers came back from a one or two-goal lead 4 different times over the 2 games, Minnesota State only trailed once. Minnesota has had more recent success with adversity - they came back from a goal down to win in the final 4:08 against Alaska-Anchorage and gave up the first goal both nights versus North Dakota - yet it's difficult to keep playing with fire without getting burned.
Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) leads the nation in points since Christmas with 12 points in 7 games. Right behind him, however, is a player who missed the prior series in Gopher sophomore Sam Warning, who has 11. He's part of a second line along with Nate Condon (Colorado Avalanche) and Zach Budish (Nashville Predators) that has given the team a pair of scoring lines despite missing Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild) for 3 games.
(We'll have more on Condon, who was named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week, later today.)
Haula is back from an injured hand and once again is expected to play wing rather than center this weekend. Despite the two injuries, the Gophers have gotten through the season rather unscathed when it comes to injuries. The same holds true for Minnesota State, which has to come as a relief given the severity of some of their injuries last year (i.e. Chase Grant missing the majority of the season with a leg injury).
Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings has remarkably turned the program around in his first year behind the bench. Although the team has only won 2 of their 5 last games, Minnesota State went on an 11-1 run earlier in the season. Sophomore Matt Leitner leads the team with 29 points in 26 games (including 5 goals in his last 8 games). Meanwhile, fellow classmate J.P. LaFontaine is right behind him with 24 (8G-16A) and forward Teddy Blueger (Pittsburgh Penguins) has 13 points in 22 points and represented Latvia in the recent World Juniors.
Minnesota State's biggest impact has come from freshman goalie Stephon Williams. The 6'2" Fairbanks, Alaska native has a .925 save percentage with 4 shutouts and was named by Chris Dilks to his all-WCHA rookie team.
How he fares against the top-scoring offense in the nation in his duel with fellow freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) should be one of the biggest tests of the weekend. They are two of 9 freshmen goalies who have a .920 save percentage or better and both have shown the ability to steal games (Wilcox has 3 shutouts of his own).
As it is, Minnesota is ending the first month of the second on a high note but following a week against their biggest rival the Golden Gophers can't afford a letup against an in-state one. Minnesota State might not have the historical pedigree of BC, Notre Dame or North Dakota, but they already have something against Minnesota none of those three have: a win.
Minnesota and Minnesota State play in a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday. The Gophers host the Mavericks Friday on BTN before driving 75 miles to Mankato Saturday on Fox Sports North. Both games start at 7 p.m. CT.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.