After a disappointing split with Princeton this past weekend, the Michigan State Spartans hockey team has no time to sulk this week. The Spartans return to B1G play when the #6 Minnesota Gophers come to East Lansing. The Spartans were 0-2-2 against the Gophers last season, with a pair of shootout victories. This weeks match-up also means the return of the Honeycrisp Trophy, a creation between TOC, The Daily Gopher, Sippin' On Purple and Off Tackle Empire. The trophy is on the line when MSU and Minnesota square off in football, basketball and hockey.
Be sure to check out all the great Gopher coverage at The Daily Gopher and look for my answers to Danny's questions over there soon as well.
1) Minnesota sits at 8-4 with only one troubling loss, last weekend's defeat to Northeastern. Have the Gophers met fan expectations or is falling from the #1 spot getting the fanbase a little antsy?
The inconsistent way the team has played has people antsy. Everyone believes this team is a national championship contender, and they've shown flashes of greatness to justify that belief: starting the season 8-1, the dominant sweep of Notre Dame, the 6-2 pants-ing of Boston College in Boston. However, the Gophers have thrown a few stinkers out there as well. The really gross one is the Northeastern loss, as you point out.
When the Gophers play hard, they look sharp, fast, and nearly impossible to beat. The problem is that they come out and look disinterested some games, and they haven't responded well to in-game adversity very well this year. So yes, people are antsy. I don't think anyone is panicking yet because Minnesota has played the third strongest schedule of any team (by KRACH), so it's not like all the bad games have been against bad teams. Three of the them were against very good teams (Saint Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth).
2) Minnesota has four guys over double digit points in scoring, with Kyle Rau leading the way at 15 points. Out of that top group of scorers who should Spartan fans be most worried about this weekend?
I suppose that depends on what you're worried about, exactly. Rau and Justin Kloos are the main goal scoring threats out of the top four scorers. Kloos has taken a big step from last year, and he led the team in goal-scoring last year. His main improvement has been in his patience with the puck. He'll hold the puck and stare down the goaltender for as long as it takes to find an opening, and he has the hands to hit that opening. Rau is more of a Zach Parise effort scorer. He's talented too, but he picks up a lot of goals from fighting into tough areas and picking up rebounds.
The other two players with 10+ this season are Mike Reilly and Taylor Cammarata, the playmakers. Reilly is the most talented defensemen I've ever seen play college hockey; better even than Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold. He's a one-man breakout and creates a lot of assists by jumping into the play in the offensive zone. He's also critical on the first power play unit. Cammarata is a young talented guy who makes great passes.
I guess if I were you, I would worry most about Kloos.
(TOC Interjection: Let's not leave Justin Kloos wide open in the slot)
3) Outside of that top group who are some depth players that stand out for the Gophers this season?
Two guys that I haven't mentioned yet are Hudson Fasching and Sam Warning. They're second and fourth on the team in the goal column, respectively, but fifth and sixth in overall scoring because the top guys have so many assists. Fasching is an NHL-bodied forward, but he still has to work on his skating and puck-handling. A little improvement in those areas will make him nearly unstoppable in college because lots of guys won't be able to match his physicality. You'll see flashes where he dominates games and you'll say "wow, that's pro-level play" but then he'll disappear for stretches.
Warning has the talent to score lots of goals, but has struggled throughout his career to find consistency. He's a natural scorer with really soft hands, and he's one of the faster players on the ice, but he also has a tendency to disappear for stretches.
Depth is really the name of the game for Minnesota. Kloos has a chance to score twenty goals this season, but I'm not sure anyone else will threaten that mark. They're designed to get pretty even production from the top three lines. A lot of teams can match one scoring line, some teams can match two, but only a few can really compete against three lines that can score. The fourth line has done a nice job of creating pressure on the forecheck this year. Even though it hasn't translated to many goals, they've been able to tilt the ice when the top lines take a breather.
4) Minnesota has dominated the B1G in the first year+, and by the look of it this year they will stretch that to 2 seasons. Are Minnesota fans happy with the league product or let down by lack of competition? How would Gopher fans like to improve/fix the league?
I think Minnesota fans largely view the Big Ten the way other teams do: as a big change. We fear change. We had some awesome rivalries in the old WCHA, and a fabulous playoff tournament, and we miss that. We also tend to condescend to the other teams in the new conference because it seems like everyone is sort of down or dead in the water (love you, Wisconsin), and that's frustrating because we're used to being in a top-tier league.
For me, personally, I kind of like the Big Ten as it is. I like playing Michigan and Michigan State because we also play those teams in other sports. We still get to play Wisconsin four times each year. The best part of the league only having six teams is that we get 15 non-conference contests. That's allowed the Gophers to schedule traditional rivals (the four other Minnesota schools) which are all quality programs as well as more games against schools like Notre Dame and BC. I really don't miss playing Colorado College, Denver, the Alaskans, and Michigan Tech. We get North Dakota back on the regular season schedule next season. I think it's great.
As for conference expansion, playing against Iowa or Illinois or Northwestern or Rutgers interests me zero. Have you been to those places? Terrible.
5) Adam Wilcox continues to be a horse in net with his stats looking pretty good (.919 save %, 2.25 GAA). Outside of the stat sheet how has Wilcox played compared to past seasons?
Wilcox is playing at high level once again. He's made a few more circus saves. His stats are a bit behind what we've become accustomed to because he's been left on an island by the skaters from time-to-time. When the team has struggled, they've had a hard time exiting the defensive zone with possession. There have been way too many turnovers at their own blue line and along the half wall in the defensive zone. I don't care who your goalie is, if the team can't effectively clear the zone after one or two saves, the goalie is in trouble.
(TOC interjection: Adam Wilcox is a bad, bad man.)
6) Which is the better internet trophy, The Honeycrisp or the Bits of Broken Chair?
This is a tough question. Both have positive qualities and virtually no downside.
The Honeycrisp Trophy. This trophy has the advantage in terms of longevity and SB Nation exclusivity. I also appreciate the tinfoil hat aspect very much.
The $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. This trophy's main advantage is that it was so quickly embraced by Goldy Gopher, who took it from a budding internet meme to a real physical trophy and then to the game against Nebraska, where First Team All-Big Ten/Big Ten Punter of the Year Peter Mortell (B1G B1G B1G) celebrated with the Trophy after the Gophers victory.
The two trophies share this quality (which I consider the most important quality of anything on the internet): a snarky air about huge, culturally embedded establishments' weak (and blatantly commercial) attempts to manufacture tradition without any basis. These are truly trophies of the people and of the internet age.
In the end, I give the edge to the Honeycrisp because I believe the Big Ten assigned Saruman to referee the Gophers' football game against Wisconsin to help ensure that Ohio State makes it into the College Football Playoff, and my tinfoil hat matches the trophy.
7) Care to hazard a guess on how this weekends games play out?
I think the Gophers come out flying Friday night and win 4-1. Saturday will be closer, but I think the Gophers win 3-2.