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BC Hockey vs. Minnesota: Q&A With The Daily Gopher

Talkin' Bout the Gophers. There will be a hockey Q&A this week.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The preseason national title favorite comes to Conte Forum on Friday as the Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the Boston College Eagles in a 6 PM Black Friday special. This should be one of the most enjoyable home games in years, and to help preview it we reached out to Danny McCargar, hockey writer for The Daily Gopher, our fine burrowed friends  covering Minnesota for SB Nation.

1) From the outside looking in, my perception of Minnesota is that this is "the year" for them—the year that lots of building has led up to, with just a stacked roster of talent top to bottom. Would you agree that this year more than any other in recent memory, it's national title or bust for the Gophers?

That's pretty much everybody's perception on Minnesota this year, inside and out. There are two factors to the expectations being sky-high this year. First, the team has been really good the past few years. They've been to two consecutive Frozen Fours (thanks BC for knocking them out two years ago [I don't really mean "thanks"]). Then they made it to the National Championship game last year and got Unioned. Those two losses sting, as you might guess, but such is the nature of a single elimination tournament.

The second factor is based on the first: the team that lost in the National Championship game returned 95% (not an exaggeration) of its scoring and returned star goaltender Adam Wilcox. Only five seniors graduated after last season, and none of the Gophers gave up eligibility to sign a pro contract. That's not to say the team didn't lose some very talented players and key leaders, but Gopher fans were ecstatic that everyone came back. That simply doesn't happen here. Generally, the team's most talented players one year will be playing in the NHL the next. Look at Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula.

Also, Don Lucia always recruits well, so there's always optimism about the incoming group of freshman. One of them, Leon Bristedt, has already seen lots of minutes on the Gophers top line with Kyle Rau and Hudson Fasching.

2) That said, Minnesota has hit a small skid in the past two weeks. First of all, what did Minnesota-Duluth do to grind the Gophers offense to a halt over that two game series?

It's true that the Gophers have not been consistent in the last three weeks. Now, the competition level the past three weeks has been pretty good: #7 St. Cloud State, #15 Notre Dame, #14 Minnesota-Duluth, and the Gophers are 3-3 in that stretch. In the three losses (at SCSU and a home-and-home sweep at the hands of UMD), the Gophers looked and played flat. This is a team built to win with speed and skill, but in the three losses they looked slow, lost races to open pucks, failed to separate from defenders and control the puck in the offensive zone, and had trouble connecting on passes. This is all very uncharacteristic of Minnesota in the last two years.

However, in the sweep of Notre Dame, the Gophers looked dominant, winning 5-0 and 4-2. The night and day difference between the wins and losses is startling. To me, it says the team needs to learn to play at a high level consistently. They also need to learn to show up to the rink ready to play. In all three losses, they got behind in the first period and never even tied the games. So I'd like to see some consistency and fight; not every team is going to just roll over because they're playing the Gophers.

3) Then there was the US U-18 game. It's an exhibition so you don't want to read too much into it, but what happened there? The U-18s have a really good record this year, so maybe this wasn't a fluke result at all.

I didn't watch the U-18 game so I'm not really sure. I'm not overly concerned because A, it's an exhibition game, and B, it's a no-win for the Gophers. If you beat them, who cares, they're a bunch of teenagers and you're supposed to be the best team in the country. If you lose, everyone goes "whaa happened?" Also, Don Lucia rested Wilcox in the game and let freshman Nick Lehr get some game time. Lehr hasn't seen any time this season, literally, and his 0.875 save percentage in this game might have had something to do with it. Wilcox is clipping along at .918 this season, so he probably would have taken two goals of the board against forty shots.

4) Minnesota has really had BC's number the past two seasons when the Eagles went to Mariucci for a total of three games and were lucky to get one tie out of it, along with two blowout losses. Those were pretty good BC teams, so to what do you attribute those drubbings?

I can't really point to one reason the Gophers have played BC so well since the Frozen Four. All I can say is that the Minnesota teams were also really talented and had an excellent goaltender. Maybe it's the extra 13 feet of width on the Mariucci ice sheet. I really don't have a good answer for this one. Maybe they're still angry about losing the in the Frozen Four two years ago.

5) It seems like the Gophers have been plagued over the past decade by early defections but this year's team is laden with stud upperclassmen: Rau, Warning, Wilcox, and Ambroz, just to name a few. Would you chalk this up to luck, or anything philosophical by Lucia and the coaching staff?

I think there are a couple factors to Minnesota's ability (this year) to keep upperclassmen around. First, I do believe there's been a very slight philosophical change in recruiting. After all the early departures of the past decade, I think Lucia decided that it would probably be good to have some guys on the team who are more likely than not to stay for four years. That means guys that are a year away from the League are probably not as high of a priority as guys who are two-three and four years away from being League ready. That's just an outsider's perspective.

The Gophers also got lucky, depending on your perspective. Tampa Bay probably has more goaltending talent in their system than any other team, so Wilcox's pro option wasn't super-attractive. Kyle Rau bleeds maroon and gold, and I think missing out on the national title last year probably kept him around. Also, he's not a very big guy, so he isn't an obvious straight-to-the-League player. I think retaining Wilcox was huge for some other guys, and keeping Rau was icing on the cake. They all want a title.

6) What's Minnesota's style on the power play?

The Gophers run sort of a low umbrella. They rely on Mike Reilly to quarterback the breakout and the offensive zone from the blue line. Once they're set up, they basically do what every power play should do and try to force the goaltender to move laterally. They especially like the cross-ice one-timer from the goaltender's right side. They've been a little hamstrung on the power play since they lost Travis Boyd to injury, that spot on the goalie's right side is his on the first unit.

The Gophers have a propensity (in my opinion) to turn up shots when they have clear looks at the goaltender and instead opt for the homerun pass. This is frustrating for me because Hudson Fasching has the size and hands to put plant himself in the slot and put away rebounds, and there is enough shooting talent on this team to flat out beat goaltenders, even the goalie has a clear view of the shot.

7) Let's take a quick second to have a hearty laugh at Wisconsin.

(pauses for hearty laugh)

That said—and again, this is coming from an outside perspective—it seems like a flaw in the Big Ten right now is that a number of programs accustomed to being in the NCAA tournament more often than not are going to have to deal with spending some time as conference bottom-feeders on occasion, especially as Penn State improves. In the long run, the conference is going to need to add another pair of teams in order to really work, right? Or am I off base there?

I shall join you in your moment of laughing at Wisconsin. LOLOLOLOLolololol hahahahahahahahahaha, but seriously, it couldn't have happened to a better school. My weekly Big Ten Power Poll is joy each week as their losses build and build and build. I expected Wisconsin to be down with all the players they lost, but not like this. This is better than I could have hoped.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, man, it's ugly out there right now. Ohio State has never been a powerhouse, their coach is self-righteous and annoying, and nobody on their campus knows they have a varsity team. Bad times. Michigan is young and talented but underachieving (again). Michigan State is Michigan State, short on talent, big on heart. Penn State has been a pleasant surprise but have you seen their schedule? Sheesh.

I don't know that adding teams to the conference is the answer. Penn State makes the most sense from a hockey culture standpoint, the state has two pro teams. Rutgers and Illinois might be viable candidates, but continually adding brand new D-1 programs isn't necessarily a way to make this conference better.

Frankly, I kind of like it now. Minnesota is guaranteed a home series and an away series against each big ten program, and I like playing teams the Gophers also play in Football, Basketball, and everything else. Plus, the conference only eats up 20 games of the schedule. That leaves lots of space to play the four other Minnesota schools and other really good teams like BC and, eventually, the Whioux from the Tundra.

I think the best way to "fix" the Big Ten in hockey, if it needs fixing, is for the teams to be better. A lot of the programs are down now, but they'll come back. Unfortunately, Wisconsin can't suck forever. There are too many quality Minnesota high schoolers and they can't all play for the Gophers.

8) Can we please get Goldy to come to this game? We miss him. He hung out with us at the Frozen Four.

I think Goldy should be at all games, even when the Gophers aren't involved in the contest. He's hands-down the best mascot in the world. I don't see how anyone could hate on Goldy. I'm jealous that you got to hang out with him.