Otherwise known as the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Gophers can be pesky buggers. This weekend the Seawolves will need to find ways to overcome that peskiness in order to win their best 2 out of 3 WCHA playoff series at The John in Minneapolis. And much as is true when trying to rid these rodents from your garden; a multi-pronged strategy will be the most effective method.
The key elements of UAA's success in the 2nd half of the season will all need to be evident this weekend. Nothing new here from me on that front. The Seawolves succeed when they perform well in their own zone. Defense builds championships. All that stuff that I've been repeating ad nauseum over the past few weeks. Here it comes again.
The Seawolves will have to limit the number of power play chances they give up. So discipline will be important. The fewer penalties the Seawolves take the better. The Gopher's staff is big on the ol' "this is our barn" ethos and instills that sense of pride deeply in their team. There hasn't been a UAA/UM series that I can remember when Gopher players didn't at some point express that on the ice through their play by trying to instigate. The Seawolves will have to ignore that trolling as best as they can.
The team will have to keep doing what they've been doing really well defensively. They will have to play committed and responsibly in their own end. That means giving up the body by going down to block shots. It means tactically adhering to positioning in order to eliminate both passing and shooting lanes. It also means that they'll have to clear rebounds and win the challenges for loose pucks. It also means manning up and eliminating potential screens in front of the goaltender. The more pucks that Chris Kamal or Rob Gunderson can see, the more they can control. All these tactics have been well practiced and employed in the 2nd half of the season and I expect the same this weekend.
Next, the Seawolves will have to control the middle of the ice. Allowing the Gophers free reign through the neutral zone is not an option. Single forecheckers in the Gopher zone after a possession change are going to be key. The forechecker(s) will have to be energetic enough in their challenge to buy key seconds for the other skaters to gain their positional advantages. Then they'll have to force the flow of the play so good challenges can be made on the Gopher breakout passes. And the guys stationed in the neutral zone had better have their wheels well lubed. The Gophers will try to come into that zone with momentum and any success they have doing so will likely translate to scoring chances.
On the offensive end, the Seawolves will have to be patient and take advantage of the chances they earn or are given. That means finishing will be very important as we all know. Good shot selection and or finding a teammate with a good pass could be the difference. The neutral zone strategy should provide some opportunities for odd-man rushes (as it usually does) and the guys will need to execute during those chances. A shot that goes wide can't go into the net. Just sayin ...
Secondary scoring for the Seawolves will be welcomed this weekend. Tommy Grant leads the WCHA in game winning goals and that's great and all but if some of the guys with just a few goals this season can produce then UAA's odds of success will increase. I couldn't like this season's rookie class much more than already I do but if one or some of those guys can contribute this weekend it'll be huge.
Offensive contributions from the blueliners could factor in as well for the Seawolves. We all know what Curtis Leinweber can bring to the effort at times. If he has a good game offensively any weekend the Seawolves tend to win as he can really create havoc with his dynamic play.
Special teams will both need to be up to snuff this weekend. You can't say enough good stuff about how well the Seawolves have done on the PK. They lead the league in kill percentage and get shorthanded scoring chances at a fairly high rate (in all games this season the Seawolves have 6 shorthanded goals). The PP numbers aren't spectacular but I can count more than a few goals in the last few series that UAA picked up within just a few seconds of the end of a power play.
The bench will need to be aware of and exert as much control as possible over the lines on the ice. With the last change, Lucia will have the advantage of getting who he wants on the ice against whatever line UAA has on the ice. Coach Shyiak will have to make his players aware when he sees mismatches that he can avoid by short-shifting here and there as appropriate. More than any series this season, coaching moves on the bench will have an impact on the game. I say that because it's the playoffs. The Gophers aren't just going to roll 4 lines in succession this weekend. It's playoff hockey all the way. Donnie Lucia made that clear in his comments that I linked to yesterday.
The key players to note on the Gophers side mostly happen to be upperclassmen. #17 Jacob Cepis, #26 Jay Barriball and #11 Mike Hoeffel are all seniors and lead their scoring in that order. But it doesn't stop there as there are 4 other guys who either have double digits in goals or are close. There's been a lot of talk lately about the increased effectiveness lately from freshman #27 Nick Bjugstad. Pencil him in as the slot guy on the Gopher power play. At 6'4" he's a big target with good hands and 6 of his 8 goals have come in the last 7 games.
Look also for the Gophers to try to draw UAA defenders to them on the power play by working it back to the points often. Typical Gopher power plays of the past have often worked by drawing teams out or to one wall or the other then making terrific passes to open sides or backdoors. The Seawolves cannot overcommit during the PK, if they do they could get burned. The Gophers historically specialize in tape to tape passing.
By all means though, those guys above aren't the only threats to score. When you build a team out of highly regarded prospects, even the so-called energy line has guys that are capable of finishing. Look at the boxscore from the 5-1 loss to the Gophers earlier this season and you'll see what I mean. Nobody that scored any of those five goals have I mentioned above.
Goaltending of course will be a big part of the story for both teams. Chris Kamal has got to be all be a certainty to start on Friday night; his .941%, 1.57gaa and 6-1 record in his last 7 starts tells that story without even mentioning his stellar play last weekend and against UAF in the Saturday game before that. Kent Patterson is really the only option the Gophers have and he's been playing very well. Not much I can analyze there. Both guys will need the teams in front of them to play well. The Seawolves can't count on the Gophers to be as lacking on defense as Mankato was.
This weekend is a big deal. In my mind the Seawolves have had a very nice season; especially the 2nd half. But winning this series can change that "very nice" descriptor to "exceptionally nice". I'll note here that it's interesting to watch Gopher fans on the Internet grind through their Pairwise numbers and assumed Final Five matchups in anticipation of winning this series.
The last Internet person I saw doing so much of that was Chuck on his NoAlibies blog with his Bracketology series that he started back in January. He ain't publishing that anymore. While I know the Seawolves team has no consideration to make any particular fanbase regret their suppositions, I sure hope they accomplish that this weekend. For someone like me, there is nothing sweeter.