The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team will step onto the ice at TD Garden in Boston for their first game at the NCAA Frozen Four since they lost the NCAA Championship game to Union in 2014 on Thursday night. Their opponents – the team that finished their season last year, the Minnesota State Mavericks. It’s a fight in Minnesota to get a team to the national championship game.
Minnesota got their place with Worcester Regional victories over defending NCAA champion UMass Minutemen and then the # 1 seed in the Western Michigan Broncos region. Now they come to Boston in a relatively unusual position, the lowest ranked team remaining at Frozen Four and statistically the biggest underdog in the pack. The Gopherne are usually the ones with the huge goal on their backs, but this time it is they who are targeting. But do not think that Minnesota State still does not believe that Gophers are the ones to be hunted. After all, while this is Minnesota’s 22nd Frozen Four appearance in school history, Minnesota State is just making their second. The Mavericks defeated the Gophers at Loveland 4-0 to make the Frozen Four last spring only to drop their semifinal match to another in-state rival St. Louis. Cloud State 5-4 on a late goal with less than a minute left of the match. You know they want redemption for that trip, while Gophers wants to get back to the place they have occupied more often than almost any other school in the country – national finalist. Minnesota has reached 12 NCAA Championship games in the program’s history – with only a record of 5-7 to show. In fact, this Frozen Four has three of the four teams in the nation with the most NCAA Championship games in history with Michigan and Minnesota’s 12 spots in second place after North Dakota’s 13, and Denver comes just behind with 11. Minnesota would love to try to jump up in the row of winners and try to catch up with Wolverine’s nine titles and Denvers 8.
In order for the Gophers to get past the Mavericks and have a chance to play for the NCAA title # 6, they will have to play one of their best games of the season. The Mavericks may be the team with the least history in the Frozen Four, but this season is all that really matters. They bring a tight checking team that will want to control the gameplay for a full 60 minutes, one of the best goalkeepers in NCAA history and a team that may lack the firepower of some of the other teams in the field, or in the least has less. alerted firepower but can still put the puck in the net.
The key to the Mavericks game starts and ends with goalkeeper Dryden McKay. McKay is the winning goalie in NCAA history. His 117 wins and 34 shutouts are the most of any goalkeeper who has ever played college hockey. He has a save percentage of .932 in his career, and this season alone for the Mavericks has a record of 37-4-0 with a save percentage of .934 and 1.28 goals against the average. Is he helped by the fact that the Mavericks defense is the most stingy in the nation and allows only 19 shots on goal per. match – you bet, but this defense is tough and Minnesota will have to perform their gameplay perfectly to get through it and get chances on goal. When they do, they will have to take advantage of them – this is not the game for 25 weak soft shots on goal. They’ll have to get dirty – tip to try to get past McKay or fight for what rebounds are in front of the net. There will be no easy goals for Minnesota on Thursday night.
But like we said, the Mavericks can also put the puck in the net. The Mavericks are the second highest scoring team in the country with an average of 4.1 goals per game. yes, it may be inflated that some play a much weaker CCHA program, but the Mavericks went 10-2 in the non-conference schedule this season and swept the UMass team Minnesota defeated in the region, split with St. Louis. Cloud State and defeated Notre Dame 1-0 in a close Albany Regional Final to get back to the Frozen Four. The Mavs lost to Michigan with a 3-2 score back in October, with McKay giving up three goals on just 19 shots on goal.
But when Mavs clicks offensively – beware. Their top line is anchored by two of the top scorers in the nation. Nathan Smith is number two in the country with 50 points and has 19 goals this season. This despite the fact that he missed three weeks joining the Gopher trio Ben Meyers, Mathew Knies and Brock Faber in Beijing with the US Olympic team. Smiths center Julien Naprivnik is number three in the country in scoring with 49 points this season. Brendan Furry and Cade Borchard both have over 40 points, giving the Mavs two lines worth scoring, which Gophers will have to defend against.
Minnesota will look to counter the Mavericks scoring with some great play from their defensive corps. Brock Faber and Ryan Johnson have played almost half of the game the last two games for Gophers and they will see plenty of time again. Along with Jackson, LaCombe and Minnesota have the horses needed to shut down the MSU offense, but they will also have to generate attacks. Minnesota looked best against both UMass and Western Michigan as they did not try to play a transition game. They needed to get puck control in the offensive zone and set up their offensive. The Mavericks will be very hard to do this against. Their neutral zone trap is set up not to allow teams to get the puck into the zone of possession, but rather to dump and chase and most often lose the puck and ball possession. Gophers will have to make smart breakout passes to try to break this trap – as they did in the third period and overtime against U Mass to get zone entry and puck control – then good things can happen. But Gophers can not get into a dump and hunting game with Minnesota State – it will not work. Minnesota tried to do that last year, and when the Mavericks got a couple of quick goals, the Gophers got out of the way and tried to go after the home run passes … which were easily shut down. Play your game, be smart, take the opportunities you get, and make good things happen. Do not force, make mistakes and must play from behind.
Minnesota will need to get some scores from all three top lines. The Meyers-Knies-Hugelin line has made all the heavy lifting so far, but Gophers will not be able to get through the next game or two without some kind of contribution from the Sammy Walker-Blake McLaughlin-Bryce Brodzynski line. They have to show up. Add the third line by Tristan Broz, Rhett Pitlick and Jaxon Nelson, and any help they can get to take advantage of any disagreements will be key. The Mavericks as a “home team” get the final change. They will be able to check matchups of their staff against Gopher’s top lines. Minnesota will need to get some help from the bottom of the row, where their depth should hopefully shine through.
Part of not playing from behind will be to keep the area in front of Justen Close clean. Close has played great for Minnesota down the stretch, but is still struggling with a lot of traffic ahead of him as he is a minor goalkeeper. The Gopher defenders and attackers must do a good job of clearing out the area in front of Close and making sure all rebounds are taken care of. If the Mavericks were to score a few early dirty goals, it would be a long night for Minnesota.
The game on the ice will be what wins the game for Minnesota, but the historic warnings are sticking deep this weekend in Boston. The Gophers are back where they won their first ever NCAA Championship in 1973. Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of Minnesota’s overtime victory over Maine at X to win their first title in 23 seasons. Minnesota came out of the Worcester Regional – the one that Holy Cross hosted to advance to the Frozen Four. This year was the first region that Gophers had won outside of the state of Minnesota since -2002. It might just be looking for good signs, but it just feels like something is right for Minnesota. Now they have to go out and play underdog, the pressure is off and get what they deserve. Mavericks have the better national ranking in each category. They are “supposed” to win. Time to prove the no-sayers wrong.
Attack: 3.61 goals per game. fight (4th in the nation)
Defense: 2.26 goals per. camp (11.)
Power Play: 21.55% (21.)
Penalty Kill: 84.85% (13th)
Minnesota State Mavericks:
Attack: 4.1 goals per game. camp (2.)
Defense: 1.29 goals per. camp (2.)
Power play: 26.99% (3.)
Penalty Kill 86.62% (10.)
HOW TO SEE: NCAA FROZEN FOUR SEMIFINAL:
# 2 Minnesota Gophers vs. # 1 Minnesota State Mavericks
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
When: 7.30 pm Thursday
TV: ESPN U
Radio: 100.3 FM / 1130 AM / 103.5 FM / I Heart Radio