Gophers hockey gains an edge on opponents with speed

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2014 - 12:57 AM

Close observers say this is Gophers’ fastest hockey team in many years.

They show it off whenever possible. During starting lineup announcements, changing lines, rushing up the ice, transitioning back to defense — it’s easy to recognize the Gophers’ speed.

Minnesota hockey icon Lou Nanne claims it’s the fastest Gophers team he’s seen. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said it’s the fastest bunch of Gophers he’s seen in 12 years coaching against them.

Don Lucia doesn’t like to compare, but it’s hard to argue with results. The Gophers have topped expectations by compiling a 25-5-6 record, winning a third consecutive regular-season conference championship, and claiming the No. 1 seed in this weekend’s inaugural Big Ten hockey tournament at Xcel Energy Center. And there’s no arguing, speed has been the Gophers’ biggest asset.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team [in college hockey] as fast as them,” Nanne said. “All of their lines have quickness. Their defense is really quick. They’ve got great overall speed and excellent quickness in short areas.”

Each line of forwards could claim it’s the fastest, with Sam Warning on the first line, Nate Condon on the second, Tom Serratore on the third and Vinni Lettieri on the fourth. Taylor Cammarata, however, is certain the second line carries the most speed.

Condon and Justin Kloos are referred to as “burners.” Cammarata is also quick.

It didn’t take long for Kloos, a 5-9, 178-pound freshman, to realize he and his linemates were always a couple of steps ahead of opponents. In the Gophers’ sixth game of the season against Boston College, Kloos beat his defender to the puck and started to break away. What Kloos didn’t realize, Condon was already a step ahead of him and the pair connected for the first of six goals that night.

“It was cool that Condon and I were able to make a play like that at full speed. I never have to slow down on a play, I have to speed up if anything,” Kloos said. “I expected [speed] coming into the season and after a couple plays like that you got more comfortable.”

Speed has played into most of the Gophers’ 125 goals. Lucia said his team plays fast by moving the puck, getting to it first and chipping it behind opponents.

It’s also somewhat of a hidden fact, he said, that the Gophers defensemen skate very well. The blue-line speed gets back to pucks quickly and consistently keeps the Gophers out of their zone.

Lucia describes this as playing north to south. When the Gophers start turning the puck over and playing “east-west,” it leads to trouble.

Wisconsin and Michigan State have been a part of the trouble. Each team found success by slowing down the tempo and keeping an extra defender back. Teams that try to skate with the Gophers struggle to keep up.

Running into a physical opponent in the single-elimination conference and NCAA tournaments is a concern to Lucia, but he’s encouraging his players to play faster.

“They’re as fast as any team they’ve had there in a long time,” Eaves said. “With speed and skill you have to be able to play at tempo. You still want to take time and space away from them … that’s actually what they do to their opponents.”

The Gophers’ reliance on speed has something to do with their lack of size (10 players 5-10 or under). Condon said they have to play to their advantage and small guys usually skate well. He praised Kloos for his ability to make plays out of the corners with his quickness, where size traditionally has an advantage.

Cammarata said Kloos is the fastest Gopher, but Kloos maintains its Condon, the senior co-captain.

“I think our team has really embodied [using speed and quickness to our advantage] all year since we don’t have the size we’re used to,” Condon said. “You gotta play to your skill set. … and we’ve got speed throughout the lineup.”

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  • Gophers players during men's hockey practice on Wednesday at Ridder Arena . ] CARLOS GONZALEZ cgonzalez@startribune.com - March 19, 2014 , Minneapolis, Minn., Ridder Arena, Gophers men's hockey Big Ten tournament advance, looking at the speed of the Gophers team.

  • The Gophers have the speed to buzz around in practice and in games this season. They often look like a blur to opponents.

  • The Gophers have the speed to buzz around in practice and in games this season. They often look like a blur to opponents.

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