When the end is near, U hockey comes to life

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 7:01 AM

Third-period success is a constant for the U men's hockey team, and theories range from goaltending to fitness to determination.

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All three of Tom Serratore's goals this season, like this one against North Dakota, have come in the third period.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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In his autobiography, Mark Twain restated a point -- "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Twain was a smart fellow, and he was right: Statistics can be manipulated. But sometimes they simply make a point. Take this numerical nugget from the world of men's college hockey: The Gophers have outscored their opponents 24-4 in the third period this season. That's domination. And it cries for an explanation.

Whom better to ask than Gophers coach Don Lucia? After four mediocre seasons, his Gophers are 11-3 and ranked No. 2 in one national poll and No. 3 in the other going into a nonconference series at Michigan State this weekend.

Good luck to the Spartans if they are trailing going into the final period. The Gophers are 10-0 when ahead or tied after two periods. Only Minnesota Duluth (two goals in one game, one in another) and Vermont (one goal) have scored on the Gophers in the third period.

Lucia offered several reasons for the Gophers' late-game success:

1. Goalie Kent Patterson

He has a 0.86 goals-against average and a .968 save percentage in third periods this season. His teammates block shots, clog passing lanes and limit opponents to an average of 9.3 shots the final period.

Patterson got his sixth shutout, a program record, in the Gophers' 5-0 victory over St. Cloud State in their last game. "Honestly, it was awesome," captain Taylor Matson said. "With about 10 minutes left, we were all playing for Kent. We didn't need any more goals."

2. Improved conditioning

"We probably did as much skating or more than we ever had," Lucia said. "And we have not let up on that at all."

Said sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt: "I really don't see a dropoff in our physical play or in our forecheck in the third period. Usually you have guys in the third period -- they run out gas. Our team doesn't face that problem as much."

3. Team depth

The Gophers play four lines and three pairs of defensemen throughout most games. "We haven't shortened the bench very much," Lucia said. "And we have had multiple guys involved in the penalty kill."

He said his third and fourth lines most nights have outplayed the bottom lines of the opponents. "We have scored some big goals as a result," he said.

Nick Bjugstad, Gophers first-line center who is tied for the NCAA scoring lead, has nine of his 21 points, including four goals, in the third period. Fourth-line winger Tom Serratore has all three of his goals in the final period.

The Gophers have scored at least one goal in the final period of every game except their 6-0 rout of Vermont.

4. Mental toughness

Cal Dietz, the team's strength and conditioning coach, suggested this final rationale.

"In my library, we've researched mental toughness," Dietz said, "and it seems there is one way to truly make [athletes] and that is to put somebody through pain and agony."

Dietz, who works with nine Gophers teams, said Matson is off the charts in toughness. "I have never seen anybody being able to block [pain] out and keep going like him," said Dietz, in his 11th season with the hockey team. "We have kids like Nick Bjugstad doing whatever Taylor Matson does."

Or at least trying.

One of the most grueling tasks for Gophers hockey players is called "Four Corners." It involves running up and down the stairs in every corner of Mariucci Arena as fast as possible. Last spring Matson did it in 2 minutes, 10 seconds. He broke Kris Chucko's record set about six years ago by 15 seconds -- then spent 17 minutes on the floor recovering.

"[Taylor] never quits," said freshman winger Kyle Rau, who has scored five of his nine goals in the third period. "He is relentless. He is something else."

So are the Gophers when the final period begins.

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