Six games played and six victories secured. That's how the Gophers men's hockey team is rolling right now, and the nation's fourth-ranked team will put that to the test Tuesday and Wednesday in a Big Ten series at No. 5 Michigan.
The Gophers, off to their first 6-0 start since the 2001-02 national championship team began 11-0-2, will close out the first portion of the season by seeking their second road sweep in seven days. To do so, Minnesota will rely on a formula that's served it so well so far.
Get the lead
There's a simple law that applies to sports that keep a score: A team cannot lose if it never trails.
That's the case with the Gophers, who have yet to trail at any point this season. Minnesota has struck quickly and forced the opponent to play from behind, outscoring foes 9-2 in the first period with opening-stanza goals in five of six games. That's helped the Gophers hold the lead for nearly 298 of 360 minutes played, roughly 83% of the time.
"A little theme again — that's our sixth game where we got off to a great start," coach Bob Motzko said after a 4-2 victory Friday that clinched a sweep at Michigan State. "It couldn't have been a better start, being on the road."
Keep the puck
In home sweeps of Penn State and Ohio State, the Gophers' ability to keep pucks on their sticks and away from opponents stood out. Led by puck-moving defensemen Ryan Johnson, Jackson LaCombe and Brock Faber, the Gophers calmly broke out of their defensive zone and went on the attack.
That will become more difficult at Michigan, because that trio of high NHL draft picks won't be available. Instead, those three will be in training camp for the U.S. National Junior Team as it prepares for the World Junior Championship. That means extra duty for Robbie Stucker, Ben Brinkman (expected back from an upper-body injury) and freshman Carl Fish vs. a Wolverines team missing four forwards and a defenseman to the U.S. camp.
"It's going to be up to our forwards and our goaltending to be awfully good," Motzko said.
Minnesota's centers can help by dominating faceoffs as they did in the first four games, when they won 139 of 226 draws (61.5%). Against Michigan State, which ranks second nationally on faceoffs (61%), the Gophers lost 42 of 65 draws Friday. "We got walloped on the draws, and that had a big impact as the game wore on," Motzko said.
Still, the Gophers rank eighth nationally at 54.2%, with Jaxon Nelson (38-26, 59.4 %), Scott Reedy (47-34, 58.0%) and Ben Meyers (63-54, 53.8%) leading the centers. Last season, Minnesota was 49th nationally at 47.9%.
The faceoff performance also has been essential in the Gophers penalty kill, which is a perfect 15-for-15.
Use their balance
Also playing a key in the 6-0 start is depth of scoring. Nineteen players have two or more points. Against the Spartans, the so-called fourth line of Nelson centering Cullen Munson and Jack Perbix combined for the Gophers' second goal in the finale, plus yeoman's work in winning puck battles.
"They bring the energy every night," Reedy said. "They're all really skilled and play with grit."
Stop the puck
Making it all stand up has been senior goalie Jack LaFontaine, the Michigan transfer who will be back in Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines. He's 6-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .956 save percentage — all numbers that lead the country among goalies with two or more starts. LaFontaine was hard on himself after giving up two goals Friday, but his coach wasn't complaining.
"Jack was great. I had no issue with anything on him tonight," Motzko said. " ... We got goaltending on the road to win both nights.''