The Gophers come to Alaska this week limping a bit. Leading goal scorer Mike Hoeffel is out with mononucleosis. Sophomore Nick Larson had ankle surgery recently. Jay Barriball went out for the season before UAA and UofM met at the end of last October. They have won only 1 of their last 4 games (10-7-1 since playing UAA in Minneapolis) and are approaching the "bleeding edge" of their fanbase's tolerance. So there are surely some limping egos ... here's why.
With several years of sub-par Gopher results there has been a year long conversation amongst UofM fans with regard to Don Lucia's future. The Goph's ply their trade inside a dense cloud of media coverage that is without peer in the college hockey world. Here in Anchorage, there is the ADN, then me and a few other regular Internet voices. The ADN? ... well ... you know.
In Minneapolis, there are half a dozen me's, multiple-hundreds of Internet voices and gawd only knows how many media sources (print, online and TV) in a metro area with 3.5 million people ... all focused like lasers on the Gophers. And you know what? Every single one of them is an expert.
As I think about it, all those NHL draft picks might be actually glad to get outside of that goldfish bowl and all it's visibility. 7 of 8 of their last games have been at home, the 8th was a short drive to St. Cloud. Through those 8 games they went 4-3-1 and the media attention has been as thick as ever. If I was a Gopher player ... I'd never pick up a paper or watch local TV.
I know in past years, that Don Lucia socialized quite closely with his friend and mentor Brush Christiansen when they're in town. So that's got to be a good thing for him. And hey, it's beautiful up here pretty much no matter where you stay in Anchorage. Gaze east at the mountains and breath deep. It's relaxing. There are no media demands on anyone associated with the Gophers when they're up here.
So I think this road trip is almost certainly a good thing for them overall. Cripes, Anchorage is so awesome that if they'd brought Hoeffel it probably would have cured his mono.
None of that though has any effect on the Seawolves. They certainly could give a rat's ass that the poor Gophers are constantly under media pressure at home. There will be no "Pity the Gophers" parties thrown by Seawolves. In fact, I'd imagine that a certain amount of secret pleasure might be there. The downfall of arrogance (and don't think for a second that label hasn't been earned over the last 40 years) is always a pleasurable thing to see.
Guess who is the leading point producer for the Gophers? Tony Lucia. That's right, The kid that sure looked like a marginal prospect when Pops brought him in is leading the team in points. I really didn't want to call him their leading scorer. Point producer seems more apt to me. Look up "D1 Grinder" in the dictionary and there's Tony's picture. Their 2nd leading scorer is quite a different story. Jordan Schroeder is a true prospect in every way you might define one. In his freshman season he bagged 13 goals. That defines impact in the WCHA. He's a talented 1st round NHL draft choice.
But this weekend, Seawolves fans will see a new player on the other side of the bench. Just as UAA was able to add Brad Gorham at mid-season, the Gopher's added Jacob Cepis who'd transferred from the forlorn BGSU program. Since suiting up, Cepis has 5 goals and 3 assists. He will definitely be a dangerous scoring threat. For comparison, think of Kevin Clark wearing that silly upsidedown W; Cepis is dynamic and can finish. He and Schroeder are playing on a line together and certainly ought to be their #1 scoring line. That said, there are 15 guys on their roster who have at least 2 goals.
My dark horse player on the Gopher squad is Josh Birkholz. I always like a player with pure speed and Birkholz can fly. Whatever Seawolves defensemen is on the right side when Birkholz is on the ice better be paying attention and keep their feet moving. If this kid gets the puck with some open ice, he's a threat to get around the outside. He's one of the faster players in the league by my estimation.
As I've thought about the intangible "fucking hate" factor over the last couple of days, I'm now leaning toward thinking that some displays of attitude this weekend are more likely than I originally thought. I don't have a basis for that other than I've thought my way into it. There were some fairly hardcore exchanges between these two teams and to be frank about it ... I'm fairly certain there was some "initiation" of that from behind one particular team's bench. I've talked myself into thinking that some of those bitter feelings may very well not have mitigated with time. So watch out for all that.
Hopefully, the Seawolves can play "professionally" and keep focused on the task at hand if those other distractions arise again. Importantly, I hope Shyiak's potential exchanges with the referee's are controlled and limited. I want to see the game called in the same way that Dave has expressed, but I have to admit that nothing Dave says this weekend is going to go any major distance to making that change happen. So if he can limit those interactions to only addressing grievous errors that will be a good thing.
As always, power plays and penalty kill efficiency is going to be a factor. Mentioning and highlighting that week after week gets boring as a writer but it does have to be said. All the other repetitive things should be mentioned as well. Supporting the goalie by blocking shots and clearing rebounds is always important. Generating possession in the Gopher's end with a strong cycle is another important additive property to be highlighted. Smart heads up breakouts and sharp passing in transition are two other keys. Skating through checks, winning pucks battles and blah blah blah ... right? It all matters at this point ... if you want to win.
I think the Seawolves have a bit of an advantage in overall maturity. The overall height/weight matchup isn't hugely in UAA's favor. But I think the Seawolves know how to use their size to their advantage.
All in all, our guys will have to play two quality hockey games this weekend to come away with a sweep. It's more important to focus on winning a Friday hockey game and worry about the sweep after that. As I noted earlier this week, I think the Seawolves enthusiasm was perhaps a bit ungoverned and was a contributing factor to losing last Friday night. So my new encouragement motto is for the guys to play professionally. That means to get excited after something good happens rather than before or as it is happening. This sort of professionalism ... this "governed enthusiasm" ... will lead to smart hockey and should enable two wins this weekend.
On Sunday, the Seawolves host their 2nd Annual "Skate With the Seawolves" event at Westchester Lagoon. The session begins at 1pm and ends at 3pm. The first 350 kids to turn up will receive a Seawolves beanie. I'm not exactly sure anymore what is considered a beanie. But if you've always wanted your kid to have one then drag them down there with their skates. The Blueliners will be providing hot dogs and drinks (hot and cold). Hot Chocolate with Peppermint Schnapps? Well ... I guess if you BYOPS.
The weather forecast looks pretty good for the event so you can't use that as an excuse for not going. Me? I dunno. Maybe I'll go. I won't skate though. Don't get me wrong, I have skates (they're badly in need of some sharpening) but the last time I was on them was more than 10 years ago and I weighed about 50lbs less back then. So .. um yeah ... if I can manage to go, I won't be skating.
Regardless of my presence (or lack thereof) this event is a great chance to put your youngsters out on the ice with some great hockey players. And what 12 or 13 year old future UAA player could turn down the chance to cup-check Kevin Clark?