The outside perception of the Gophers men’s hockey team has soured, and the fan chatter is full of controversial rumors. Whispers of locker-room fights, coaches in disagreement and players disassociating themselves from teammates off the ice have fueled gossip within hockey circles. ¶ An imploding locker room and infighting would be prime reasons for the Gophers’ 11-week run of mediocrity that started with a No. 1 ranking and hit its lowest point Monday when the team fell completely out of the polls. But those rumors, the Gophers say, aren’t reality.
“Everyone has their own opinion on what’s happening,” senior captain Kyle Rau said. “I’ve heard all the rumors, and most of them aren’t true, I’ll tell you that.
“We love each other, and everyone on our team has got each other’s backs. So the mood in the [locker room] is fine.”
One certainty for the Gophers is this: They will be desperate to stop the downfall as they head to Madison this weekend for a rematch with Wisconsin. Last season’s national runners-up have only four victories since mid-November and are a coming off a last-place finish in a tournament of state rivals.
Rau said he got a good laugh after reading a text message that claimed he and Travis Boyd fought in the locker room. The roommates and longtime buddies said things are fine.
“We’re not winning, simple as that,” Rau said. “One more goal and one less goal given up a night, and everyone would think everything is great even if the atmosphere was the same.”
So far, 2015 has been far from great for the Gophers, unranked for the first time since April 2011. They have two tournament letdowns since Jan. 1, no weekend sweeps since November, an offense that has scored two or fewer goals in six of the team’s past eight defeats and an underachieving defense that is giving up 2.55 goals per game — 28th in the country.
“Even when we were 7-1, I saw some things that were issues,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia, whose team is 11-9-2 now. “But now all of the sudden we’ve gone through this stretch where the scoring isn’t there. It’s that fine line where you win a couple of these games and it’s a different type of deal.”
The five returning standout players who were expected to guide the Gophers back to the Frozen Four have found themselves at the center of the team’s struggles and fan concern.
Rau is on pace for another 40-point season, but the center has yet to conjure the late-game magic he showed during his first three seasons. He also hasn’t been the goal-scorer many thought he could be; he’s currently tied for third on the team with eight goals.
Mike Reilly, an All-America defenseman last season, leads the team with 24 points, but most of the junior’s offense has come on the power play (14 points). He also has to shoulder some of the blame for an inconsistent defense that has been plagued by turnovers in its own zone.
Junior defenseman Brady Skjei, a first-round draft pick, has missed nearly two months because of injuries, and his absence stalled the developing chemistry among the defensive pairings.
The reigning Big Ten MVP, goaltender Adam Wilcox, has been a shadow of his sophomore self when he was among the NCAA leaders in victories (26, third) and goals-against average (1.97, fourth). The junior’s 2.51 goals-against average this season ranks 40th, and Wilcox and the defense have seen the team’s save percentage tumble, from .929 last season to .907.
Hudson Fasching has struggled to maintain the level of play he showed off at the World Junior Championship a month ago and throughout most of his freshman season. The sophomore has only a third of the points (10) that he finished with as a freshman, and he has scored only one goal and totaled two assists since Nov. 9. He scored a goal and had two assists in five games at the World Juniors.
Rau, however, said the team is not focused on individual shortcomings.
“We’ve got a lot of potential and got a lot of room to grow, and I don’t think anyone has underachieved,” the team captain said. “I think I can do better, but I don’t think I’ve underachieved. … Everything I wanted to accomplish for my senior year is still available to accomplish, that’s the cool thing and that’s something I’m still striving for.”
Slow to grow
The second-year Gophers in particular will be looking to correct sophomore slumps in the final seven regular-season series. Fasching, Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata were among the team’s top seven scorers as freshmen, with a combined 89 points (40 goals, 49 assists). The trio accounted for 66 percent of the freshmen scoring, with five other rookies chipping in 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists).
Fasching, Kloos and Cammarata this season have only 15 goals and 44 points through 22 games. The entire eight-player class isn’t scoring as expected, totaling 77 points (33 goals, 44 assists) so far — and that includes Connor Reilly’s team-leading 11 goals.
“Coach posted our five-on-five scoring sheet for the past 14 games on the board [in the locker room], and that was kind of a realization for [the sophomores] that we need to start producing more,” Fasching said. “It’s more than just one thing going wrong for us right now, but we as a class take responsibility for that because we’re not producing as much as we necessarily should.”
So why is a team that retained so many players from last year’s run to the national championship game only a couple games above .500 heading into the final two months of the season? Some Gophers said late-game miscues and the inability to hold leads have been the results of mental lapses.
Assistant captain Ben Marshall said he expects players to refocus and prove once again the Gophers can compete with any team in the nation.
“The locker room is fine. There is no tension within everyone, just a couple mental things we need to regroup on and figure out and hone in on what’s going on — and correct them before crunch time, before it really does matter,” Marshall said. “Some of the fans love to stir stuff up when things aren’t going well.
“Guys realize that whether it’s on a blog or the Internet or rumors, that stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the team culture that [we] need to worry about.”