Coming off tough opening weeks, the University of Minnesota - Duluth Bulldogs and the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers will each look to bounce back and build momentum in this week's Hockey Wilderness College Hockey Articles (H-WCHA) Series of the Week. It's a series loaded with history and motivation for both sides and the home-and-home format will add some extra interest to the games.
After trampling the Lakehead University Thunderwolves (that's not a real thing, is it? That seems like a fictional animal.) 6-1 in an exhibition, UMD took on BSU last Saturday. The two held each other's top lines at bay until late in the second when UMD and BSU traded goals in short order to end the second period tied at 1. The Bulldogs and Beavers continued the back-and-forth pace throughout the third until Charlie O'Connor slipped a puck past Sophomore goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo's diving arm. O'Connor's first tally of the season put BSU up 3-2 with 22 seconds left in the game.
With Soucy serving a 1-game suspension imposed by the NCHC, UMD will ice a weaker blueline than is typical on Friday night, which could give the Gopher's high-paced offense a chance to ramp up in a way they couldn't against Vermont. In their game against the Catamounts (not the medieval ballistic siege weapon, unfortunately; catamounts are the supremely-less-cool mountain lion. Catapult would have been so much better), the Gophers ran face-first into a neutral-zone trap that slowed zone entries and prevented them from establishing possession on offense.
Throughout the game, Vermont's defense stifled the normally-effective Gophers offense, killing penalty after penalty and silencing a home crowd in Minneapolis. Over the course of the game, the Gopher's frustration and desperation became obvious, with a series of bad offsides and even worse efforts to jump-start the offense. Some of that play looked like nerves and poor communication, but some of it genuinely makes me wonder what the Gophers will be able to do without some of their top players from past years. Vermont always puts a strong defense on the ice, but the performance from the Gophers looked uncharacteristically bad. Head Coach Don Lucia will be smart to ice the same lines and try to give Kloos and his fellow upperclassmen a chance to prove that Saturday's 3-0 loss to Vermont was a hiccup, not a part of a trend.
At the end of the day, the Gophers look like they have the steeper hill to climb this weekend against UMD. With so much uncertainty and nerves on the bench, the Gophers' confidence to start the season is fragile. However, the Bulldogs have their own share of difficulties and obstacles to overcome. Soucy's absence will force the Bulldogs to ice a weaker blueline against an eager Gophers team and an even more eager Mariucci crowd. At the same time, UMD Head Coach Scott Sandelin's concerns about penalties starting this year and last could prove the weak-spot for a strong Bulldogs roster. In their game against BSU, the Bulldogs gave a few too many opportunities on the power play, including two majors.
Against a motivated Gophers squad, the power-play opportunities the Bulldogs have afforded their opponents could start to burn them. The combination of penalties, the absence of Soucy, the Gophers' potential for quick offense, and an eager crowd in Mariucci on Friday night could make for a difficult weekend opener for the Bulldogs.
How this series plays out will be a product of how well Kloos and his teammates have been able to find their identity over the past week and how well the Bulldogs are able to fix their gaps on defense and stay out of the penalty box. Normally, the home-and-home format of a series like this gives both teams a fair shot at taking either game, all else equal. However, the loss of Soucy in an away game for the Bulldogs could be a serious problem as UMD comes to Minneapolis for the series opener. What may make an even bigger impact, however, is his return Saturday, especially if the Bulldogs get off on the wrong foot on Friday.
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