Team of the Week: Minnesota
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Boston College's two-game shutout sweep of Vermont was impressive. Denver's two-game road sweep at Wisconsin was certainly impressive.
But sometimes, it's a cumulative effect that raises the eyebrows. That's why this week's CHN Team of the Week is Minnesota.
The Gophers swept Colorado College to improve to 9-1 in their last 10 games. For as much as Wisconsin has dominated this season, and for as much as the Badgers have proven to be very good or great in every phase of the game, it's not hard to imagine the Gophers ultimately emerging as the most complete team when things are said and done.
Of course, those two teams will have a chance to duke it out this weekend.
Much of the credit for Minnesota's play has to go to coach Don Lucia. Fresh off the comfort of his new lengthy contract extension, he hasn't rested on his laurels. He has taken a team with a lot of high-profile personalities, and hasn't allowed any negativity to seep into the room. And he's taken a ridiculously-talented team that was prone to running around with no clue defensively early in the season, and molded them into a cohesive unit.
It wouldn't be the first time a Minnesota team has been highly-skilled, but not known how to play championship, two-way, disciplined hockey. But Lucia has proven he can mold those teams into championship contenders, and win or lose the big prize at the end, he's done so again here.
"He's obviously a great coach," said Minnesota senior defenseman Chris Harrington. "He's one of those coaches who knows the game so well and how every player individually should fit into the team. You don't really notice it, but you look back and see how he made the puzzle fit at the end of the year. ... At the same time, he's a good mentor, he makes you stay on your task."
Things came to a head defensively after the Gophers were embarassed at home in a two-game sweep at the hands of Wisconsin. They have only lost once since.
"You had to take pride into consideration and realize you have to play defense first somtimes," Harrington said. "And look how well we're doing now.
"Practices for a while were pretty intense — doing one on one things and just battling. You get out to such a hot start, you tend to finesse everything with the forwards in our league. If you try to finesse all the time, you're going to be in trouble. ... The (word was), we're skilled but soft. That's not something you want to hear about yourself."
The key lately has been the defense deciding to focus on their job — namely, playing defense. But the interesting thing is, it has not detracted from their offensive production. Mike Vannelli and Derek Peltier have both contributed offensively. Alex Goligoski is expected to, and he's not missed a beat. And senior Chris Harrington scored the game winner against Colorado College on Saturday.
The unit has learned — and not a moment too late — that just because you pay attention to detail defensively, doesn't mean it has to take away from your offense. In fact, in can help it.
"Good defense leads to good offense," said Harrington. "You can take the wind out of your opponent's sails, then they don't want to play defense. Then you're jumping in the rush."
There's never going to be an issue with the offensive skill up and down the lineup, but Harrington said the character of those players has never been a question either.
"Everyone likes each other, everyone is from the same mold," Harrington said. "The only real problem at the beginning was making sure everyone was comfortable with each other. ... There was no real jealousies at the beginning because everyone realized that we have so many high-profile players, they're probably not going to be the superstars here."
A player who has clearly emerged from the pack in more ways than one is junior Ryan Potulny, whose 19 goals is tops on the team, and 11 power-play goals is tops in the country. But where his brother Grant was the consummate leader, Ryan has much more talent. This year, though, he has shown that knack for the big goals that Grant did, and brought another dimension to what he brings to the team.
"Grant was a general, he controlled everything," said Harrington, who won a national title with Grant as a freshman. "All eyes were on him in the locker room. ... Ryan is more a leader by example, and whenever there's an important part of the game, he's out there. And this year he's exerted himself as more of a vocal leader in the locker room."
If the goaltending holds up, the sky's the limit for the Gophers.