As the NCAA hockey season chugs on, more and more of the matchups are interesting and worthy of highlight. This week's matchup brings together two old WCHA rivals in the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities and Minnesota State University - Mankato. It's a matchup that has lost some fire since the NCAA's decision to realign the conferences throughout the Midwest, but the trajectory of each team over the past few weeks has put them on a collision course that is sure to cause sparks this weekend.
Early on in the NCAA season, the MSU Mavericks struggled offensively, putting up only four goals over the first five games, including a three game drought in which they didn't bury a single puck. In the Mavericks' defense, they were outmatched by superior University of Nebraska - Omaha and St.Cloud State during each of those three goalless games.
Nevertheless, their early season struggles on offense have faded in the past month, putting up 20 goals in 6 games and earning 5 wins against competent opponents such as Bemidji State and Ferris State. Cole Huggins and Jason Pawloski have shared netminding responsibilities, with 7 and 3 starts respectively, and have given them steady, if unimpressive, backstopping which has kept them in tight games.
The real story behind MSU's turnaround over the past few weeks has been the willingness of players like Zach Stepan, Brad McClure, and Casey Nelson to fire the puck from all over the ice. The swarm of shots they are able to produce on their lines gives MSU a chance to upset opponents' defensive rhythm and pile on goals in a way that gives Pawloski or Huggins something to work with through the rest of the game.
If the Mavericks can establish their system early and slip a few past the Gophers' shaky Eric Schierhorn, they have a real chance to take one, if not both, games this weekend. For their part, the Gophers have found their rhythm recently and some of the pressure on Head Coach Don Lucia has dissipated since the early season. Last weekend, when Lucia's Gophers faced off against a different Lucia's Fighting Irish, they played a strong set of games, defending goaltender Eric Schierhorn better than they had all year. Schierhorn provided some solid goaltending, but ultimately was undone in Friday's game by a series of rough penalties and early goals.
Saturday, as I've mentioned before, was a much more complete matchup, where their top players and veteran leaders stood up and allowed the underclassmen on the squad a chance to find their footing. Justin Kloos pushed home his first of the season in Kyle Rau-esque fashion, sealing a win for the Gophers. That kind of stepping up will be essential to calming the nerves of a team that is still trying to establish its pace and offensive structure after the departure of many key players.
If the Gophers have their way on offense, the cycle and a strong net-front presence from their biggest scorers will force MSU to slow down the game. They'll have to slow down the game to dismantle that system, and the attention they pay down low could open up space along the blue line, where mobile Gophers defensemen can move with the puck and walk in shots on Huggins or Pawloski.
The two teams will face off in a home-and-home series, making use of the space between the teams. For the Gophers, the key to victory is part of that tradition -- take advantage of the space and make it work with what you have. For MSU, they'll have to shake the rhythm of the Gophers and build their own. They'll have the first crack at home ice, and that could give them momentum as they move to the unforgiving Mariucci Arena on Saturday.
With the Mavericks rolling lately and the Gophers seemingly ramping up, the two teams will trade blows this week in an effort to maintain their momentum. It will be hard for the Mavericks to keep rolling the way they have if they can't take at least one game, and the Gophers will have to go in wanting a sweep in order to bolster their position in the Big Ten. The two teams' early season failings have put them in the position that this weekend's series is a must-win for each side. That will instill them with a lot of energy, emotion, and enthusiasm as they play in front of their home crowds.
The enthusiasm around the MSU-UMN matchup may have died down somewhat over the past few years due to the NCAA realignment, but every series between these stalwarts of Minnesota hockey is guaranteed to include good play, high emotion, and lots of reasons to watch. It may not be the most exciting or most pivotal series this week (though you could certainly make that argument), but it's a matchup that's been designed by each team's trajectory this season and one that gives us a chance to look back at what the WCHA has been and currently is.