This weekend’s series between Nebraska Omaha and sixth-ranked Minnesota is big series for both teams, and for different reasons.
The Gophers (21-11-1, 17-7-0 WCHA) have already clinched home ice in the first round of the playoffs, which is something UNO (14-12-6, 11-8-5) hasn’t managed yet. Minnesota is, however, only two points clear at the top of the WCHA tree with four games left to go.
To help us preview this important series, we’ve been speaking this week with Roman Augustoviz, Gopher men’s hockey beat writer for the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis.
He’s been giving us his views on Minnesota’s season to date, the Gophers’ upcoming move to the new Big Ten hockey conference, and what he sees happening when the Gophers come to Omaha’s CenturyLink Center this weekend.
RFO: Minnesota was given a big surprise when it faced UNO early last season in the teams’ only two meetings thus far in WCHA play. Has much changed within the Gopher program since then, or will we see largely the same team again this weekend?
RA: Last season UNO played the Gophers when they were playing some of their worst hockey, falling way behind early. Alex Kangas also was struggling in the nets.
Now Kent Patterson has started the past 54 games in goal, going back to December 2011. He is a dependable goalie. The return of Mike Guentzel, a UNO assistant who left to be the Gophers associate head coach, has stabilized the defense. Five of the six defensemen have played every game.
The defense is second nationally, giving up only 2.09 goals per game.
The offense has some punch, too, with six players with 10 goals or more and seven with 25 points or more. Nick Bjugstad has 22 goals while his wings Kyle Rau and Zach Budish have 14 and 10, respectively.
It’s a team that is always in the game; nine of the Gophers’ 11 losses have come by one goal.
RFO: UNO is in a much more precarious situation than Minnesota is in terms of clinching home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. With only seven points separating the top six teams, though, is it fair to say this weekend’s set is a key series for both teams?
RA: You betcha. The Gophers, who have already clinched home ice, want to win the MacNaughton Cup. This group of seniors has not won anything.
Not one NCAA game – they have not advanced to the NCAA tournament the past three years.
Not one Final Five game. Three years ago, they lost to UMD 2-1 in a quarterfinal game. The past two seasons they didn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs.
The only time they won their own holiday tournament was as freshmen. This season the Gophers lost a trophy series to Michigan State and a trophy game to Notre Dame. This group of older players is starved for a banner or trophy.
RFO: If you had to name one Gopher that UNO fans should keep an eye out for this weekend, who would it be?
RA: The obvious answer is Nick Bjugstad, the 6-5 sophomore center with 22 goals who has been taken the puck hard to the net lately. But I’ll give you another name, sophomore forward Nate Condon. He is great on the penalty kill and seems to get one or two great short-handed chances every week. He has four short-handed goals. Very fast.
RFO: What has the general reaction been in the MSP area to the creation of the Big Ten hockey conference? Do you see it as a good thing for college hockey?
RA: Disappointment. People don’t understand why a great conference like the WCHA is breaking up. They don’t want rivalries with teams such as North Dakota and UMD to go away or be diminished.
It’s impossible to tell whether the Big Ten will be good for hockey. Depends what happens. Will more Big Ten schools add men’s and women’s hockey? Will the Big Ten Network create more interest in the sport? Will small programs die if they are not in a conference with big programs?
All that remains to be seen. But what people usually miss is, the Big Ten Conference was inevitable. The only reason Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State were playing in other leagues was because there were not enough Big Ten schools with the sport.
Once there were, and six is the magic number, the Big Ten was going to bring hockey under its umbrella. That’s what conferences do.
I hope the Big Ten turns out to be a plus for college hockey.
RFO: Speaking of the Big Ten, one of the UNO hockey message boards has seen a lot of discussion about Lucia telling WCCO last Sunday that a varsity hockey program at Nebraska-Lincoln would be a natural fit. Do you agree with him?
RA: To be honest, I don’t really know how big youth hockey is in Lincoln or how well the USHL Stars draw. Natural fit isn’t the words I would use for bringing college hockey there.
Seems like Illinois, which has a strong club program, or Northwestern would be better fits among Big Ten schools without the sport. Both are in a state with a popular NHL team, the Chicago Blackhawks, so hockey is prominent.
RFO: Lastly, it’s prediction time. What do you see happening in this weekend’s series? Things didn’t go so well for the Gophers the last time they faced UNO – Could the U be in for another shock, or do you see the Gophers getting something out of these two games?
RA: The Gophers went into their last WCHA road series at Denver looking for a split. At least that’s how it seemed. They were leading with under two minutes left in the second game there and lost in OT. It was the first time they were swept this season.
That was their shock. I don’t expect another one so soon. I am picking a split for the Gophers in Omaha. They would settle for that since they are going into this weekend with a two-point lead over second-place UMD.
Many thanks go out to Roman for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us this week. For more from him – and you should be looking for it – he runs the Roman Empire blog at the Star Tribune’s website and is a must-follow on Twitter at @RomanStrib.