Minnesota, Schierhorn Can't Let a Bad Weekend Become Something More
Minnesota can turn anyone's head.
Watch the Gophers for a few minutes. Watch Tyler Sheehy effortlessly redirect a pass by a goalie as he streaks through the slot. Watch Casey Mittelstadt embarrass a defenseman almost as highly touted as he is to set up a goal. Watch Ryan Lindgren bang a slap shot off the crossbar moments after breaking up an opposing rush in his own zone.
The Gophers can play man.
Except, sometimes, they just don't.
Through the season's first 12 games, we have two versions of the Gophers from which to choose when projecting their fate for the 2017-18 season. This isn't uncommon, of course, 12 games isn't exactly a whole season. But it's not insignificant either. Minnesota is 7-4-1. They're pretty a good team most of the time.
Against Michigan last weekend, the Gophers scored 10 goals in two games. It's not a stretch to say a team like Minnesota should expect to score a good amount every weekend. The issue, though, is that they should expect to win those games. The Gophers got just a point out of their weekend in Ann Arbor, leaving Yost Ice Arena with a loss and a tie. The tie was especially frustrating.
The Gophers had a 6-3 lead with 15:53 left in the third period Saturday night. They kept Michigan down for a while, too. Starting at 13:03, Michigan struck for three goals in 5:45 to level the score and force overtime. Brendan Warren, Luke Martin and Tony Calderone scored for the Wolverines. Michigan outshot Minnesota, 14-6, in the third period and overtime.
It's not fair to say Gophers deserved to lose — scoring six goals in a game typically means you're doing a thing or two correctly. For the better part of the game, the Gophers did everything correctly. That includes goaltender Eric Schierhorn.
In their wins this season, the junior has been one of Minnesota's best players. In losses and Saturday's tie, he simply hasn't. The Gophers have seven wins. In those games, he has a .961 save percentage. In the five games they haven't won, that number dips to .857. The variance suggests more than just Schierhorn playing especially well or poorly from night to night.
The Gophers haven't shown they can control games once they establish leads. For the season, Minnesota has accounted for 47.1 percent of shots taken in their games. They've managed more than 55 percent of the goals in their games. The lengthy stretches of brilliance the team regularly displays aren't enough to offset the times when they just can't get the puck out of their own end or dictate pace.
Statistically, there's evidence suggesting some obvious regression coming for the Gophers. They're scoring more goals than their puck possession suggests and relying a bit too heavily on Schierhorn at times. When he's up to the challenge, the Gophers get wins. When he's less than perfect, they don't.
Teams change over the course of a season. Minnesota, the sixth youngest team in the country by age, is precisely the kind of team you'd expect to see improve. The talent threshold is remarkably high. The coaching staff is one of the best in the nation. It's Minnesota. There's reason to believe the results will be there in the end.
The Gophers have won all four of the Big Ten's regular-season titles. They've been an NCAA tournament team in five of the last six seasons with a pair of Frozen Four berths in that time. Don Lucia and his coaching staff have been in their current positions before and successfully navigated through it. The challenges are clear moving forward, though.
Even Schierhorn's start presents a potential hurdle. In his first two seasons with the Gophers, both years the clear No. 1, he's posted a .906 and .908 save percentage respectively. The Gophers were a very good team in each of these years, so it's not exactly as though Schierhorn was constantly under bombardment. He simply never played all that well. Right now, his .913 save percentage puts him 29th nationally. That's about average, but it's also higher than he's ever performed at this level.
Some of his numbers before Minnesota suggest a greater capability — he was a .927 goalie in his lone USHL season at Muskegon. And, hell, kids don't get to play for Minnesota by being bad. However, it's not uncommon for goalies to see their save percentages dwindle after unexpectedly hot starts. It may already be under way for Schierhorn. After last weekend's games with Michigan, his save percentage fell from .933 to .913.
The biggest lesson here is a few wins early in the season don't suggest a team is any good. A few losses doesn't mean a club is bad either. Right now, Minnesota looks like a potentially very good team that has a few very clear problems it must correct. Both the good and bad of Minnesota were on display in last weekend's games in Ann Arbor.
If anyone can solve these problems, it's Minnesota's mix of gifted players and proven coaches. And they'll have to do exactly that to get the Gophers where they want to go this season.