It's October 21 and the Gophers haven't imploded yet. That 21 is also the number of goals they've scored over three games in the early NCAA season. Sure, the US U18 team helped that number out a lot by letting in nine in one sitting last weekend, but who's keeping score? Oh, yeah, everyone.
In the three dominant victories by the Gophers, there are a few things that look good: they've got the classic maroon and gold scoring touch, their goalie looks like a stud, and there's some real consistency up and down the lineup. It's good to see that they're not off to a shaky start, but at this point, their play would only be notable if they hadn't won all three of the games against less-skilled, less-acclaimed, and less-drafted teams.
This weekend marks the first part of a real test for this emerging Gophers team as they take on St. Cloud State, who've stifled the Gophers in recent years, sweeping them in 2015-2016. The Huskies-Gophers rivalry goes back to the WCHA days, and it's clear that the Huskies haven't forgotten its importance. In the Big Ten, the Gophers would do well to forget their recent past with in-state rivals and allow new blood to define their play this weekend.
Among that new blood is Rem Pitlick, who has a sensational game against the U18 team, pumping in three goals for the Gophers. While the competition will be stiffer on tonight and tomorrow, the confidence boost should carry over.
Regardless of their play this weekend, the Gophers will have their work cut out for them as they move into a difficult stretch of the season, one that will test the quality of their roster by fire. Over the next few weeks, the Gophers will play against better teams outside the Big Ten. These next few weeks will give a glimpse of what next spring may look like, if the coaches who picked the Gophers to win the Big Ten and an autobid to the NCAA tournament are to be believed.
Elsewhere around the Midwest, the Badgers surprised many (including myself) as they went 1-1-0 against Boston College, defeating them by a score of 3-1 on Friday and falling 5-8 on the following night. Truth be told, I expect the Badgers to play a lot of series' like this over the course of the season, catching teams who underestimate them off-guard. Once those teams realize the Badgers are in fact a real, actual hockey team, it'll be a tougher road. But for the time being, the NCAA should be on notice that Tony Granato is speaking and his team is listening.
This weekend, the Badgers host the US U18 team that the Gophers suffocated last weekend. If nothing else, their performance will be a barometer for a future Gophers-Badgers matchup this season. It's good timing for Wisconsin, who needs to reaffirm good habits and excise some bad ones. They're still on shaky ground, but the past few weeks have provided some evidence that the changes that have been made are for the positive, which was honestly the only possible scenario given the past few years for Bucky's favorite squad (just kidding, he definitely prefers the Badgers' women's team, who are stellar).
The following night, the U18 team will head to Duluth to take on a Bulldogs team that's been trying to build on bigsuccesses early in the season. Despite a 3-1 record this early on, it's clear that the departure of Kasimir Kaskisuo is a big area of concern in the crease. His stability and athleticism saved them some games last year and could be a surprise to some fans if things go south for the No.2 team in the country. Dominic Toninato, who eschewed a likely spot on the Marlies AHL squad in the name of "unfinished business," has been pretty quiet this season. Against the U18 team, he might have a chance to make some noise, which would be welcome news for the team as they march onward in 2016.
As for the reigning NCAA tourney champs, they'll host Bemidji State and look to build on their excellent start to the season. If you're watching the Beavers and Fighting Hawks, keep an eye on the second and third lines for North Dakota, who have been providing a lot of consistency for a team that was a teensy bit top-heavy last year. The Beavers will have to do everything in their power to push pucks past Cam Johnson and a North Dakota blueline that has kept opponents off balance and pushed the pace for the past two seasons.
Last, and certainly not least, the No. 9 Minnesota State Mavericks will take on the Alaska Nanooks (cool name) this weekend. Minnesota State has built its ranking on the backs of a solid d-corps, which is pretty typical of the Mavericks, and a goaltender who's sitting on a .938 SV %. That'll likely prove too much for a Nanooks team that tries to create scoring from the points but lacks the game-breaking players they will need to topple the better Mavericks group.
I'll be providing some updates on these games as the weekend goes on, so be sure to follow me @Real_JackVT for that.