WeldieBlog: Looking Back At WJC, Looking Ahead To Gophers
The midpoint of the season is upon us and things couldn't have gotten much better for the Huskies men's hockey team.
The team currently sits at 12-2-3 on the season and claim the top spot in the Pairwise.
Yes, I did mention the Pairwise. I think you can start to look at the Pairwise once the calendar turns over as a bearing of where you are in regard to other teams. However, it is still too volatile to put too much stock into them. I will look at more analyzing and possibly bracketology once we get into February.
While the winter break gave most of the Huskies some well-deserved rest, both head coach Bob Motzko and sophomore Ryan Poehling have been representing USA at the World Junior Championships (WJC).
This is the most entertaining form of hockey to watch. The skill on the ice is impressive, the speed and at a breakneck pace, and the defense makes just enough mistakes to make it exciting without being frusterating to watch. I think having professionals in the Olympics is not actually the best way to get new fans due
to how strong defensively the countries are. In every sport, defense trumps offense most of the time. When you have the best defenders, that eliminates many chances and can make for some boring games.
Case in point: 2014 Sochi Semifinals. Both games were HUGE rivalry games that should guarantee fireworks. Instead, Sweden defeated Finland by a score of 2-1, whereas Canada beat the United States 1-0. Not exactly a way to win fans.
But the WJC is different. It's a little bit less structure due to using amateur players, but still has plenty of skill on display.
Team USA has survived to the medal round. 'Survived' may not be the correct word, but there were some touchy moments. Injuries have been detrimental, losing key players
Will Lockwood for the rest of the tournament (and possibly the rest of the season for Michigan) and Logan Brown, who is day-to-day. The roster only has room for 20 skaters.
You suit up 18 for a game, so you don't have a lot of wiggle room when a player goes down.
Team USA suffered a stunning loss to Slovakia in group play. They were able to rebound the next day to beat Canada in a shootout and dispatch Finland to enter the
knockout stage. They eliminated Russia, who has been very successful in this event, medaling in the last seven years. They face Sweden today at 3 p.m.
This is going to be a lengthly blog anyway, so I don't want to go into the thoughts on the incredily terrible time slot or the problems with ticket prices to the event for amateur hockey. Instead, I just focus on one major player for Sweden: Rasmus Dahlin.
Remember that name, because he will become the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Dahlin is a dynamic two-way defenseman who shows flashes of absolute brilliance offensively. He has deceptive speed and hand-eye coordination and is able to really surprise opponents. If you have the opportunity, here is a highlight reel I found on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbMv8NGpS0s). He is playing in the Swedish Hockey League, so he isn't dominating 15-year-olds like some Canadian Hockey League prospects; he is going against adults. The USA defense will have its hands full.
No matter the outcome, USA will play today and Friday. The next series for the Huskies pits them against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Because of the WJC, this series was moved to a Saturday/Sunday series. However, it will be interesting to see how the players are used.
In addition to Ryan Poehling, two Gopher players also play on the WJC; Casey Mittelstadt and Ryan Lindgren. Mittelstadt was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, where this tournament is being held. Some of his goals have been the talk of the tournament and a nice preview of what is to come for Sabre fans (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHrLM3jkAxw). Ryan Lindgren will be leaned on heavily the next two games as a cornerstone for the USA defense.
That brings us to this weekend's home-and-home series. All in all, I think the Huskies are at a big advantage this weekend. It will be interesting to see how both Motzko
and Gophers coach Don Lucia use the players that competed in the WJC. No matter how you look at it, playing four games in four days just isn't really plausible. I know the games are just in Buffalo so travel isn't really a factor, but that is still a lot of wear and tear on the body.
Now, the conventional thinking is that Motzko will let Ryan Poehling sit on Saturday and play Sunday. Whereas I do see this is the most likely scenario, Ryan Poehling should sit both nights. The Huskies are in perfect position to make some noise late in the season. In the grand scheme of things, only Pairwise points are up for grabs.
Pairwise points are big and this is our only game against a Big 10 team, but the Huskies are in a very comfortable position to make the NCAA tournament. Is it worth having a major player for the Huskies risk something major, even a minor but lingering injury, during a non-conference series where there isn't a lot to gain? So many national champions aren't just the best teams, but the healthiest. If you look at the risk-reward of it, I think the risks outweigh. I say that for one key reason.
The Huskies are much deeper than the Gophers. The Huskies average over four goals per game while the Gophers are at a lackluster 2.73 goals per game. Couple that with Mittelstadt and/or Lindgren either sitting or very fatigued for either/or both games, the Gophers offense is nothing to write home about. If the Huskies can put Jimmy Schuldt on the ice anytime Rem Pitlick-Tommy Novak-Tyler Sheehy line is on the ice, I can't imagine the Gophers generating much offense especially with how deep the Huskies are on defense.
Usually, I'd take a look at the Gophers power play and see who wins the special teams match-ups, but it has barely shown up. The Gophers are just 13.5% on the power play.
Only seven teams in all of college hockey are worse on the power play.
The Gophers don't know what they have with Mat Robson yet, but I assume he will get one of the games. The Clarkson transfer has played two games, posting a 1-1 record. Eric Schierhorn has played every other game this season, but only has a .914 save percentage.
The key to beating the Gophers is to get out to a lead early. The Gophers are 1-5 when trailing after the first period, but 7-0-1 when they are up after one. If the Huskies score quickly, the Gophers don't have the firepower to come back. As the game goes on, the two teams tend to go in opposite directions. The Gophers have a -4 goal differential in the third period. During the same frame, the Huskies have a +16 goal differential. The Huskies are 9-0-1 at home, while the Gophers are an abysmal 1-7-1 on the road. The only thing going for the Gophers is their home record of 10-2-0. I do wonder how much that has to do with the Olympic ice, something that won't be a factor for the Huskies (it certainly isn't the atmosphere).
This is why I think the depth for the Huskies will play a key role and why I don't think Ryan Poehling should play this weekend. Sure, you can point to the two ties against a sub-par Princeton team, but after a lay-off, you will have games that everything isn't together. Princeton did a remarkable job getting into lanes and disrupting the flow of the game for the Huskies.
The Huskies showed a lot of character coming from behind both games. That won't be a problem against Minnesota, a team where the Huskies have won the past four meetings.
All signs are pointing to a strong weekend for the Huskies. They can't be happy with the two ties in Princeton and it's against a team they will be excited to play against.
- Congratuations to current Husky Will Borgen and former Husky Garrett Roe for making the USA Olympic team. I'm actually excited and intrigued for hockey in the Olympics because of the unpredictiability of it. I'll go more into it in a future blog.
- The Golden Gophers lead the all time series against the Huskies 54-33-12, but haven't won since 11/1/2014, a 4-3 overtime winner scored by Justin Kloos.
- Huskies goalie David Hrenak will be available for either game since Slovakia was bounced from the WJC earlier this week. I expect Motzko to continue his goalie rotation, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to think about handing the reigns to one of the goalies.
This blog is the opinion of Travis Weldon, College hockey fan and frequent guest of Granite City Sports. You can read more from Travis on Twitter @MoarClappers.