Erratic Gophers hockey team remains a mystery

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2012 - 1:38 PM

Tied with UMD for first in the WCHA, the somewhat erratic Gophers start the season's second half on the road at a tough place to play -- the Ralph.

Halfway through the conference schedule, the Gophers are tied for first in the WCHA with Minnesota Duluth, the defending NCAA champion.

Their lofty perch makes the Gophers one of the league's most surprising teams considering conference coaches and the media picked the U to finish sixth. Still, the Gophers remain somewhat of a mystery. They have played like two different teams -- sometimes in back-to-back games.

They opened 9-1 and put an exclamation mark on that attention-grabbing start by sweeping North Dakota on Nov. 4-5 at Mariucci Arena. Since then, they are 6-6-1 and take a two-game losing streak into this weekend's rematch in Grand Forks.

"I am looking forward to the road trip," coach Don Lucia said. "We have been at home since Thanksgiving."

The Gophers, after winning their first six conference games, are 11-3 in the WCHA. So what has gone right and wrong with a team rated No. 1 in the nation for two weeks in November? Here's a first-half breakdown of the Gophers, No. 5 in the latest polls:

FORWARDS

Sophomore Nick Bjugstad has 17 goals. Kyle Rau leads all Division I freshmen with 12 goals, including five game-winners. They play on the top line with Zach Budish, who has 14 assists.

Erik Haula, the center on the second line, was leading the nation in scoring early. He had seven goals and 17 points his first seven games, but has only three goals since.

Another concern is the three other freshmen in the regular rotation -- Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz and Travis Boyd. They have two goals between them since the opening weekend. Lucia said the Gophers need more from them.

The forwards need to play with more urgency and crash the net harder at times. But the Gophers, who haven't had a 20-goal scorer in two seasons, are still second in Division I scoring at 4.04 goals per game.

Grade: B-plus.

DEFENSEMEN

The blue-line corps was a major concern going into this season. But four sophomores all have improved under associate head coach Mike Guentzel, especially Nate Schmidt. He has a goal and 23 assists after struggling to make the lineup his first season. Jack Parenteau has given up the fewest scoring chances.

Justin Holl probably made the biggest strength gain on the team, and is one of four defensemen who are plus-11 or better. Mark Alt, the fourth sophomore, has the most goals among them with four.

The Gophers have held opponents to 25 shots or fewer -- their pregame goal -- in 11 games. But they need to do a better job of reducing breakaways and odd-man rushes.

Grade: B-minus.

GOALIE

Iron-man Kent Patterson, a senior, has played every minute. He had five shutouts in his first nine starts, one since. Lucia admires his consistency. Patterson has had only a couple off nights. He has a 2.13 goals-against average and has given up only 28 even-strength goals. Teammates have complete confidence in him.

Grade: A-minus

POWER PLAY

Too often it seems to be really good or really bad. In the Gophers' 4-3 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, the power play showed its two extremes. In the opening period, the Gophers had two shots on goal in a five-minute man-advantage. The next period, they had eight shots on goal, four from close-range, and scored during a two-minute power play. Their success rate is 24.5 percent, which ranks seventh nationally.

Grade: B

PENALTY KILL

Forwards Taylor Matson and Nate Condon, who play together on one penalty kill unit, always seem to get one or two great short-handed scoring chances every game. Both are fast and anticipate well. But the penalty kill, after being at 91 percent, has only a 76 percent success rate in the past 11 games, partly because opponents have scored on a handful of 5-on-3s. The overall penalty kill is at 82.9 percent, second in the WCHA but 23rd among Division I teams.

Grade: B

COACHING

Hard to fault Lucia on much so far. Even if the Gophers go 7-7 the rest of the season, they would still finish with as many points as the third-place WCHA team had a year ago.

Lucia has tried to look at the bigger picture and not get too upset after recent losses -- at least when he appears in front of the media. He put together his top three lines and kept them the same, although a few more losses could change that. He needs to work on helping the Gophers eliminate slow starts. Coaches also look smart when they have a goalie like Patterson to start every game.

Grade: B-plus

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