As the Eagles get set to take on the #1 team in America this weekend, we chatted about the series with SBNation's The Daily Gopher. We answered some of their questions the other day - and yes, we were smart enough to ask our questions before we published yesterday's article. Jeff Kilpatrick of The Daily Gopher handled the Q&A.
BCI: I can't speak for all BC fans, but Minnesota is my favorite Western team to watch, and I'm beyond thrilled that we have a marquee series like this early in the season to look forward to. I'm still not a big fan of all the realignment that happened in college hockey, but this series (and others like it) is a great side-effect. Now that realignment is a reality, how do you feel about it compared to how you may have felt when it was first announced? And what non-conference foes are you most excited to play going forward?
TDG: Most Minnesota fans hate the change. The Gophers were founding members of the WCHA where they got to play all of their rivals every year. It was a great conference, and there was zero need for change, yet thanks to Terry Pegula and Jim Delany, Minnesota and Wisconsin were forced into the B1G. Wisconsin stays, but North Dakota is off the schedule for the next four years, and no more DU or CC either. The Gophers did pledge to play the other four D1 programs in the state (UMD, St Cloud St- or as we like to call them "Jan Brady State", Bemidji and Mankato) every year, and the five of them also got together and started the Minnesota College Cup.
We'll all begrudgingly get used to it eventually I'm sure, but for now, we're grumpy. NOW GET OFF MY LAWN! That type of thing. As for non-con opponents, the series with BC this weekend plus Notre Dame in November should both be great, and as mentioned, we'll still see all the Minnesota schools every year.
BCI: This touches on a similar topic regarding nonconference scheduling: how did you feel about the NCAA's decision to emphasize road wins in the tournament selection formula? Do you think this will lead to Minnesota scheduling more big-time road opponents?
TDG: I've never been a big fan of the Pairwise for picking the tourney seeds, and this just seems like another unnecessary tweak. Schools in the three big conferences (B1G, Hockey East, and whatever s***show conference UND and the rest of them started for tens of hundreds of dollars in additional TV revenue. Just a bang-up job of them ruining the WCHA. I mean really, they couldn't have just added Miami and Western Michigan to replace Minnesota and Sconnie instead of breaking off to start their own conference that should net them about an additional $35 per year each? Though to be fair, $35 goes a LONG way in a place like Grand Forks, so maybe it makes more sense) will continue to schedule strong non-conference schedules as they always have. Minnesota already has almost their entire non-con schedule locked in every year because of the commitment to play the other Minnesota schools and the Mariucci Classic, so we're only talking about 4 games per year they can play with. They're not going to go out of their way to schedule extra road games every season because they don't have to. If they're good, they'll be in the tournament.
BCI: As expected, Minnesota is off to a 4-0 start this season. Do you think the team's performances have lived up to the team's lofty expectations so far?
TDG: Well yeah, so far so good, but again it's really early. We've seen the past few years where the Gophers come out of the gates hot in October and November but aren't playing their best hockey come March. Last year they were loaded and had a great regular season winning the WCHA, then flamed out early in both the conference and NCAA's. Folks here want a deep NCAA run every year, and while this team is much younger than a year ago, I think the potential is there. The #1 ranking at this point of the year is useless, and I don't think the Gophers are the best team in the country right now by any stretch, but what matters is they play well into the meat of the schedule here and start getting hot in February leading into the playoffs instead of in November.
BCI: Have you seen anything that's surprised you thus far? (Players unexpectedly doing well or not-so-well, strengths or weaknesses that are different from last year, etc.).
TDG: It's definitely been the play of senior D Justin Holl. Last season he was shifted to forward because there just wasn't room for him in the D rotation, and there were questions this season of whether he'd be pushed out again by a couple of talented incoming freshmen (Mike Brodzinski and Jake Bischoff). Holl has responded by playing his best hockey (I know, I know it's early) and has been paired with soph Brady Skjei as the top defensive pairing, and thus far the two have played really well. Considering Minnesota lost three good defensemen from a season ago, including their team MVP Nate Schmidt (who is currently wearing a gorgeous #88 for the Washington Capitals. Those crazy kids today and their jersey numbers), they've really need some of the vets to step up. Skjei, the first round pick of the Rangers last year, had a really disappointing rookie season, but is already looking much better.
Otherwise, Minnesota is attempting to shift junior Kyle Rau to center after playing his first two seasons as a top line winger. If Rau proves he can handle playing the pivot that will make head coach Don Lucia's job a lot easier as he juggles lines. Minnesota is not very big at all, especially up front, but is insanely fast and skilled with their top nine guys. Freshman Hudson Fasching has jumped up with Rau and Sam Warning and has looked great. At 6'2 and 200+ pounds Fasching could be a real menace as a power forward in college hockey, but has shown better skating than expected too. If he can keep playing this well it allows Minnesota to roll three scoring lines.
BCI: What is Minnesota's game plan for shutting down superstars on opposing teams such as BC's Johnny Gaudreau? Do you expect the Gophers to match lines or do you think the burden will fall on all of the lines equally?
TDG: Because the game is at home on the big sheet at Mariucci, I don't think you'll see him match up lines a ton. Lucia believes in rolling four lines all game long, so while you may see the third or fourth line guys out against Gaudreau's line from time to time, don't be surprised to see Lucia go top line vs top line if the game dictates it. Where I do think he'll play matchups with Gaudreau is trying get Skjei and Holl out against him whenever possible.
BCI: How would you describe the Gophers' style on special teams? They are likely to be a huge factor in this series.
TDG: This is still a work in progress. Minnesota lost 4/5ths of one of the best power plays in the country from a season ago, so they're still juggling pieces a bit to see who fits where. Minnesota is just 3-20 in their first four games with the man advantage, and in what's expected to be two close games against BC, those numbers have to get better. With Schmidt last year they'd play just one D at the point with the other four in front of him in hopes of freeing up space and trying to open up the cross-ice one-timers. The penalty kill needs to improve too as the Gophs' are at only 76% right now (15 for 19). Lucia has been trotting out third line guys, but he's also sent out top-line players Rau and Warning on occasion as well, but it's something that we hope to see getting better as the season progresses.
BCI: Last year, the Gophers absolutely bowled over BC at Mariucci. To what did you attribute that smackdown?
TDG: Clearly Minnesota's sheer awesomeness (that is totally a word, I don't care what you say) was just too much for BC to handle. No really, that was a strange one, though a really fun game to watch as a Gopher fan. I know BC was missing Gaudreau at the World Juniors, as well as a couple of regular D-men to injury, and it just seemed like Minnesota pounced early and surprised the Eagles, and they never recovered. As much as I'd love to see that again, I'm certainly not expecting it.
BCI: Any predictions for this weekend's series?
TDG: A split seems pretty likely. After the first couple of weekends of a season, Don Lucia's clubs have really struggled on Friday nights for some reason, so if BC is winning I'll predict it happens Friday night, and Minnesota will rally for the win Sunday afternoon.
BCI: Is your women's hockey team ever going to lose again? Ever? Could they hurry up and do that some time? Because it's getting annoying.
TDG: Wait, you haven't enjoyed the back-to-back national titles and current 54 game winning streak? Because it's been really, really fun to follow as a Gopher fan. What coach Brad Frost is doing there right now is just insane, and I don't see it ending anytime soon. Oh sure, they'll probably lose eventually...right?