Team of the Week: Minnesota
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Minnesota's struggles over the last three seasons have been well-documented. Failing to reach the NCAA Tournament is not something people are accustomed to in Gopher-land, and the natives have gotten restless.
Theories have abounded for where the failures lie, and we've expounded on many of them ourselves. But the bottom line is, for the last three seasons, Minnesota has been pretty good, but not good enough.
Changing that around this year is not necessarily a given either. Minnesota made a popular move, bringing back assistant Mike Guentzel to replace John Hill. But the talent base is similar to years past — good on paper, but young, and still untested.
Minnesota's two-game rout of Sacred Heart to open the season was not exactly the test that would prove things one way or another. But, while there's still a lot of season to go, the Gophers can say they are off and running in the right direction, after sweeping rival Minnesota-Duluth on the road last weekend in two highly entertaining games.
"We're still a work in progress, there's a lot of work to do," Lucia said. "We had great play out of our goalie and special teams this weekend and that helped, and it always does, especially on the road. But it's a good confidence builder. And being up a couple goals, then down, then tying it; and then coming back to get a win (Saturday), the way we did it. They're still the defending champs and a good team, and to go into their building and win a couple games is a good reward for the hard work our guys have been putting in."
Friday's game was wild, with almost anything in it you could want. Minnesota got out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Erik Haula and Kyle Rau, and in between was a small fracas. Each team had a player tossed out of the game for hitting from behind in the second period, while UMD scored three times to end the period 3-3. Duluth scored with two minutes in regulation to take the lead, only to see Haula tie it with 44 seconds remaining, and Nate Condon scored late in OT to win it for the Gophers.
Saturday, Minnesota got down 2-0, only to score the next five goals, including two more from Condon. Rau got the fifth one, midway through the third, and it wound up being the game winner, as the Bulldogs made a late rally.
The shots Saturday were 50-16 in favor of Minnesota-Duluth, but it wasn't really indicative of the story. The game had a good flow up and down, each way, and a lot — not all — of Duluth's shots were dump-ins and from the perimeter.
"There was the one rebound goal off the 5-on-3, but otherwise there were no second shots," Lucia said. "We're young, especially on the backline. ... Probably the biggest thing for us is just the defense getting more confidence in their gaps. When you're inexperienced, you tend to give ground too soon instead of tighten gaps, so it's just having the confidence to get your gaps back. We had some unforced turnovers — but that's just inexperience. They need repetitions and games."
Most of the name players are up front. The backline is not the flashy group it's been in years past — there's no Leopold or Martin or Goligoski, at least not yet.
"We could use a senior defenseman, an all-league 25-minute-a-night guy," Lucia said. "But we have to play a team game back there. We have one junior and no seniors. The rest is freshmen and sophomores. We have to let that group grow. For now, they have to play within themselves."
Seth Helgeson is the "veteran" on defense, a junior, while Nate Schmidt and Mark Alt are sophomores. Ben Marshall and Travis Boyd are two freshmen who saw a lot of time this weekend.
Of course, it helps having a senior in Kent Patterson between the pipes. Lucia expects Patterson to play most of the games this season. Minnesota has had some goalies in recent seasons show flashes of greatness, but not sustain it over a full season. This could finally break that spell.
Up front, youngsters like Haula, Rau, Nick Bjugstad, Seth Ambroz and Zach Budish should have plenty of opportunity to carry the load. With so many players leaving early these days around the WCHA and college hockey, the sophomore-heavy front line is not so much of a problem as it is defensively. Minnesota has been hit hard in recent years adjusting to the new paradigm in college hockey, and wants a group that has a good balance between talent and grit and experience and guys who might stick around for a while.
"This is our team and we want to become the best team that we possibly can," Lucia said. "The good thing is, all of our freshmen have junior experience, even Kyle Rau."
Rau spent the last third of last season in the USHL, after starting the season in high school. The 5-foot-8 Eden Prairie, Minn., native has jumped right in and was named WCHA Freshman of the Week for his three goals against Duluth.
A key will always be the play of seniors, though, and Minnesota has a couple who have stuck around, and it hopes that makes the difference. Jake Hansen, for example, already has eight points this year.
"That light bulb really went off for him (Hansen) in the second half of last season," Lucia said. "And it's continuing and he's playing much faster and more confidently, and he'll have a terrific senior year. ... We had to play a lot of freshmen in key roles last year. Our top two centers were freshmen, now they're sophomores. (Taylor) Matson is a tenacious third-line center, Budish is back. We've got a good mix up front, and they're playing hard and paying the price, and it's getting rewarded. So we're excited about that.
"We just want to get better. Our expectation is to be there in the end. We've been close a couple times and been the odd team out. But the good thing is, we're off to a good start, especially in the league."
Minnesota has had some rough starts in recent years, making this year especially noteworthy. The Gophers were 0-3-1 and 0-3, respectively, to start league play the last two seasons — with last season's three losses all coming at home. And with seven of the first nine league games this year on the road, it's huge to get two road wins so soon.
"We're looking at the big picture," Lucia said. "It's great we're 4-0, but we've made a lot of mistakes. There's a lot to show on video."