Is Minnesota Really This Good? (Spoiler: Yes)
by Ryan Lambert/Columnist
Headed into this weekend, I was very interested to see how Minnesota did against its in-state rival, then-No. 19 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, a team generally considered to be pretty good headed into this season but which has thus far barely kept its head above .500. Trading blowouts this weekend doesn't say very much either way, though.
It's not that there was any illusion as to whether Minnesota was good, because of course it is, and was always going to be. But there's a difference between being very good, which the Gophers are, and being able to start 9-2-1 and then sustain anything close to that level. Obviously only losing two for your first 12 games puts you on pace for almost 27 wins in the regular season alone, which almost no one ever does, and therefore it's probably not a reasonable goal. But it seems that Minnesota could make a very credible run into the low- to mid-20s without much of a problem.
The fact that it has done this, for instance, against the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation to this point is one very good reason to believe it can keep this going, especially given that its remaining schedule is, in and of itself, not all that difficult in comparison. The Big Ten is already figuring to be something of a top-heavy conference, with Minnesota and Michigan way out in front of everyone else, Wisconsin somewhere in the middle, and Penn, Ohio, and Michigan States trundling along at the bottom (and yes, the Buckeyes are 8-4 to start the season, but look at who they've played and let me know how impressive all of that is).
The Gophers open their conference schedule this weekend hosting Wisconsin, and those look like two winnable games. After that, they don't play a current top-20 team in-conference again until February. That's a lot of wins to pick up between now and then, and the fact of the matter is that they've already played and pretty well dominated some of the best teams in the country.
Take, for instance, their corsi statistics, which indicate the extent of their dominance. There have been a total of 1,001 shot attempts at 5-on-5 in Minnesota games this season, and the Gophers have 556 of them (55.5 percent). This despite the fact that they've led for most of their games, which tends to have a depressive effect on your possession. They've only been out-attempted at even strength in three games this season: the second games against BC and Notre Dame, and the first against Duluth. You'll note they won those games by a combined score of 17-6.
In fact, their dominance at even strength is reflected in their goals for and against, as you might expect; if you have the puck that much more often than your opponents, you're not going to concede a lot. Their 41 goals at even strength are second in the nation, behind only Boston College (43, in one extra game, against a softer schedule). In their 12 games, meanwhile, they've allowed just 13 in the same situation.
Of course, it's worth noting that this was a team that lost a lot of talent — as clubs of this quality are wont to do — and many expected they'd take something of a step back. That hasn't happened, and part of it is because their team save percentage is up more than a little from last season, which obviously helps. But moreover, the offense has exploded thanks to an elevated shooting percentage. They're at 11.8 percent this year, up from 10.1, which may not sound like a lot, but it's the difference between opponents stopping about 90 percent of Gopher shots and 88 percent. In hockey, that's a huge difference.
But again, most of this is at even strength, and that's been the Gophers' real strength this season. Both their penalty kill and power play, though, have room for improvement. Last year they came in at 86 and 24.6 percent, respectively. But this year, both are actual points of concern, or at least would be if it even really mattered. There's no way, for example, the Gophers continue to only score on 15.3 percent of their power plays (currently 43rd in the nation), and there's also no way the PK remains at 77.8 percent (tied for 44th). Both are going to improve as the season goes along, as both the schedule becomes a little easier and they figure things out on their own. That's only going to improve their chances for winning as the season progresses.
Even now, it's a little early to start anointing anyone as the favorite for anything, but if the Gophers' special teams actually start playing to their capabilities, they're going to run away with the No. 1 seed in the nation.
So no, the Gophers aren't necessarily the best team in the country, but everything is lining up for them to a great extent, in ways that simply do not exist for any other top team. This should be very, very scary for the rest of the nation.
Michigan: This is the kind of result Michigan should be getting in a one-off against teams like Niagara. That they did, of course, is still worth noting. Three goals in the third period had Andrew Copp talking about the importance of “burying” an opponent.
Michigan State: Not a good weekend at the office for the Spartans, who were outscored by Western Michigan 6-1 in two games. The Broncos also had the first six goals of the series, which is no way to go through the first 107:31 of the series.
Minnesota: Well, at least the Gophers won on aggregate.
Ohio State: Tough to say exactly what's going on in Clark Cristofoli's latest Movember picture but I don't think anyone can be all that happy with it. Sam Jardine has to step his game up.
Wisconsin: The Badgers also had the weekend off, but did add six recruits with NLIs a few days ago. They could lose as many as a dozen players this summer. To be fair, though, that's only most of your everyday lineup.
Colorado College: The Tigers learned the hard way that if you go into St. Cloud and play poorly, you get six goals scored against you. That CC got any points at all out of the Huskies, which they did with a shootout win the night before, should probably be viewed as a big positive.
Denver: With three points against Air Force on the weekend, the Pios are unbeaten in their last five. They also ran their all-time record against the Falcons to a ho-hum 33-3-1.
Miami: Getting swept (albeit on the road) by Omaha is a little bit shocking, isn't it? Well, one partisan observer dubbed it a “strange nightmare” so probably the answer is yes.
Minnesota-Duluth: Craziest part of the split with Minnesota is that, rather than stay in Minneapolis all weekend, the Bulldogs bused it back to Duluth after they got crushed Friday night, then went back for the Sunday afternoon tilt. Bus legs are apparently outweighed by sleeping at home.
Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavs went 6-2 in November against a murderer's row schedule of — get this — visiting Denver for two, the hosting North Dakota, Michigan, and Miami. Damn impressive. What else can you say?
North Dakota: Yes, 58 shots on goal in a single game for NoDak. That includes 17 on the power play. Put another way, that was 41 shots at even strength, despite there being only 35:49 of ES time in the game. Insanity.
St. Cloud: The Huskies only had 25 shots on goal in Saturday's game against Colorado College, but six of them wound up in the back of the net, so it ended up not mattering very much.
Western Michigan: Shane Berschbach finished the weekend with four points, three of which came in Saturday's win. He's up to 12 points in his last seven games, which is a lot.
Alabama-Huntsville: The Chargers allowed seven goals this weekend, and scored none. They've already been shut out five times in 12 games. No good.
Alaska: The Nanooks spotted Ferris State a 4-0 lead, and cut it to a one-goal deficit before ultimately losing 5-3. In general, I'd note that it's not a good idea to let a top-10 team get a four-goal lead on you.
Alaska-Anchorage: The Seawolves took three out of four points from Michigan Tech this weekend, thanks to Rob Gunderson stopping 48 of 51. His teammates combined for just 38 shots on the weekend.
Bemidji State: Cory Ward rescued the Beavers from a disastrous weekend by scoring early in overtime to take a win — and weekend split — from Lake State. How disastrous was it? Tom Serratore said after the game they'd have been glad to get out of there with even a point.
Bowling Green: The Falcons blew a 2-0 first-period lead on Saturday and lost 3-2 in overtime to Mankato. But that's just becoming the norm for BG, because they've gone to OT in three straight games against the Mavs, and won just one.
Ferris State: Don't everyone all look at once but the Bulldogs have the longest unbeaten streak in the country at 8-0-1. They're unbeaten in their seven conference games, too. Decent start.
Lake Superior: Speaking of unbeaten streaks, the Lakers haven't lost on a Friday yet this season. Jim Roque is now furiously petitioning ancient Rome to get every day changed to Friday.
Michigan Tech: A classic case of a goalie pretending he has an equipment issue after a long shift that ended in an icing call led directly to Tech conceding the tying goal. Then, what do you know, UAA center Matt Bailey realized there was something wrong with his stick. Tech coach Mel Pearson, though, thought it was a commendable effort. “That’s like the old I-lost-my-contact trick,” he said after the game.
Minnesota State: There's been a bit of a power outage for the Mavs the past few weeks, but they sorted it out this weekend. After scoring just one goal in their previous three games, they netted six against Bowling Green this time around. Of course, they still only split, but at least they're moving in the right direction again.
Northern Michigan: After shutting out Huntsville in back-to-back games, and dropping the Chargers to 0-12 on the season, NMU senior defenseman CJ Ludwig said, “If they play college hockey, they're a good team.” This is patently untrue, CJ. Stop lying.
Player of the Week
Justin Crandall had four points against No. 1 Minnesota at Mariucci, and I think that's pretty good!
Goal of the Week
The Nic Dowd goal at 41 seconds of this video is very, very nice.