For the Minnesota men's hockey team, this weekend's home-and-home series against St. Cloud State offers both a prime opportunity and a tremendous challenge.
The opportunity: The Gophers have a chance to reverse a downward trend against an in-state rival that has defeated Minnesota four consecutive times and five times in the past six meetings.
"We really owe the program a couple wins this weekend," sophomore forward/defenseman Tyler Nanne said.
The challenge: The Gophers will be facing the nation's top-ranked team, a Huskies squad that has compiled a 12-2-3 record, with its only losses at defending national champion Denver.
"I don't think we'll see a better team this year," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
The opportunity/ challenge for Minnesota starts Saturday night at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, where St. Cloud State is 9-0-1 this season, the only blemish a tie with North Dakota. Making the test even stiffer is that the 10th-ranked Gophers (12-9-1) are 1-7-1 on the road. The series finishes Sunday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The Huskies boast the nation's second-ranked offense (4.06 goals per game), the fifth-ranked defense (2.12 goals allowed per game) and fourth-ranked power play (25.9 success rate). They're winning with balance -- eight players have five or more goals -- and a goaltending tandem of Jeff Smith and David Hrenak that has a combined .934 save percentage.
"You could argue that they're the most complete team in college hockey this year from offense to defense to goaltending to specialty team play," Lucia said.
The Gophers, meanwhile, are trying to find their scoring touch. They average only 2.73 goals per game, which ranks 40th nationally, and their power play ranks 53rd (13.5) and is 0-for-19 in the past four games. Looking for a spark, Lucia has tried different power-play units during practice this week.
ICYMI, The #Gophers closed out 2017 with a sweep of Army West Point last night.— Minnesota M Hockey (@GopherHockey) December 31, 2017
Game 22 Recap: https://t.co/TqUmsU7Tk6
Next Home Game: Jan 7th vs SCSU
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"Hopefully, we can get one [on the power play] and break the seal," junior forward Tyler Sheehy said. "It's been tough not getting the goals, but it's important we go out there and get some momentum and carry it out through the rest of the weekend. ... I haven't beaten St. Cloud yet in my career, so it's definitely extra motivation."
Last weekend the Gophers swept Army 3-0 and 4-1 after a 1-5 stretch. And the return of high-scoring forward Casey Mittelstadt and steady defenseman Ryan Lindgren from the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., this weekend should help.
The competition level, however, ramps up with the opener in the Granite City, where the Gophers will not only try to knock off the Huskies but also improve their showing against in-state rivals. In their NCAA runner-up season of 2013-14, the Gophers went 7-1-1 against Minnesota opponents. Since then, they're 7-18 against the Huskies, Bulldogs, Beavers and Mavericks.
"Obviously, looking back at our record against in-state teams, it's not pleasing," Nanne said. "We realize we've got to step it up."
Added junior goalie Eric Schierhorn: "We know how big these in-state rivalries, no matter who it is, mean to not only our program but our alums, our fans. So we take this very seriously.
This article is written by Randy Johnson from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.