While I mainly focus on the Minnesota Wild here at the State of Hockey News, I am also an avid college hockey fan and being from the land of (over) 10,000 lakes gave me plenty of options as there are now five Division I teams and ten Division III teams for men and women. That's 30 college hockey teams in one state! Just as the NHL's Wild have marketed Minnesota as the State of Hockey, the University of Minnesota Men's hockey program has been calling themselves "Minnesota's Pride on Ice" for years. Yet the last few seasons prior to 2011-12 the 'Pride' was lacking by quite a bit. After its most recent peak of back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003 the Golden Gophers had a steady slide of underwhelming seasons with its last NCAA tournament appearance in 2008. The mediocre play wasn't just having an effect in the win and loss column but also at the gate as you saw more and more empty seats. The once dominating home-ice advantage of a loud and raucous crowd had steadily diminished.
Throughout those years many Gopher fans (myself included) began to question whether Head Coach Don Lucia had lost his magic, with more than a few hoping the University of Minnesota's Athletic Director, Joel Maturi would finally drop the axe on Lucia. The club certainly was not losing those games because of a complete lack of talent; as it continually had the most NHL drafted players of any team in college hockey. Many of these players were 1st, 2nd round selections as well. Names like Phil Kessel, Kyle Okposo, Erik Johnson, David Fischer, Aaron Ness, Mike Hoeffel, Jordan Schroeder, Minnesota Wild's former 1st rounder Nick Leddy and many others arrived with lots of hype and talk of promising NHL futures so the Gophers should've just crushed their competition right? It was not uncommon for Minnesota to be dressing as many as 13-14 (or more) NHL drafted players in a game, a number that many American Hockey League teams could not boast. The Gophers were losing games because they played a maddeningly disorganized brand of hockey. A team full of freelancers that rolled 4 lines of players who all felt they should be on the top line and an overall approach that did not bring about a lot of consistency or team cohesion. Yes there certainly were early departures that forced the club to lean on younger players but they were not the only team to face this kind of adversity. The power play that made the Gophers so incredibly dangerous in their national championshp years had quickly become a distant memory and the club was sloppy and indecisive. The team's record speaks for itself.
2007-08 ~ 19-7-9
2008-09 ~ 17-13-7
2009-10 ~ 18-19-2
2010-11 ~ 16-14-6
2011-12 ~ 19-9-1
The records may not jump out as a complete eye sore but for a program considered to be one of college hockey's elite, their results were unacceptable. The Gophers still have a roster full of NHL drafted talent, 17 players to be precise, so why has this version of Maroon-&-Gold clad players managed to play such a strong team game where the other talented groups were not capable of doing so?
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This is the question we will attempt to answer. Of course, it probably is premature to say the Golden Gophers' have completely restored the moniker of 'Minnesota's Pride on Ice' but they're certainly playing more as a team than they have in the last 5 seasons. Afterall the team is still ranked 9th according to the all so important Pairwise Rankings but ranked 3rd in USAToday's Coach's poll. So here are my 5 reason's for this transformation from a group of highly-touted mercenaries to being one of the NCAA's elite teams.
1. John Hill out, Mike Guentzel in ~ Amongst Gopher fans for the past few years was their distaste for former Alaska-Anchorage bench boss John Hill who was an assistant coach, who was often interviewed in between periods. After last year's debacle of a season, the Gophers cut Hill loose and brought back Mike Guentzel to the Gophers bench. While Hill was a smooth talker who loved to use cliches, but Guentzel has always been a straight shooter and his intensity on the bench is obvious. Fans certainly appreciated the move as Brian Halvorson's Frozen Ponderings, another Minnesota Hockey Blog mentioned how Mike Guentzel's return gave the much-maligned program a positive boost it certainly needed in his blog here. Whether its fair or not, the Golden Gophers seem to have more intensity and its hard to believe that some of that is because of having a more fiery personality in Guentzel behind them.
2. The Freshman class has lived up to the hype ~ It seems like each and every year the Gophers are supposed to have a freshman class that is amongst the most highly touted in the nation. Yet too many times those highly touted freshman classes don't quite live up to their esteemed billing. This year that hasn't been the case, as Kyle Rau has managed to exhibit the clutch scoring ability that he had as a prep star at Eden Prairie and Ben Marshall has been the puck moving wizard the team has sorely missed. Role players Travis Boyd, Seth Ambroz, and Sam Warning have provided speed and grit which has been lacking and have made Minnesota tough to play against. Rau has been a consistent offensive presence and has had instant chemistry with sophomore Nick Bjugstad who has had a breakout season. While Rau's goal scoring has tailed off since a hot start, but a part of that cool down has been a far better effort by opposing teams to account for him defensively. Marshall may not be putting up a ton of points with just 3 goals and 9 points but his terrific mobility and on-ice vision is mature beyond his years.
3. Golden Gophers have bought into a 'team' concept ~ As I said earlier in the article, the Gophers have been guilty of having lots of talent but you could argue that many of the players were not willing to do the dirty work to win games. That being penalty killing, checking, blocking shots and backchecking are the little things that win championships. This year the team has two distinctive scoring lines and two checking lines. The result is a more well-rounded club that can frustrate you with some grit on the forecheck or beat you with their skill. Too often the team only tried to rely on its skill and they were outworked by their opponents. I would give a lot of this credit to players like Tom Serratore, Joey Miller, Travis Boyd, Nick Larson as well as senior captain Taylor Matson who have been great in a checking role that often does not result in contributions on the scoresheet but is often the difference between games won and lost.
4. Sophomores have stepped up big time ~ With just one junior and just 6 seniors there is not a lot of upperclassmen to lead the way so it has been that much more crucial for the team's large crop of sophomores to raise their game and they've more less carried the team. Nick Bjugstad has really become the super dominant player many thought he could be, leading the way with 21 goals and 33 points. Sorry Gopher fans, I doubt you'll see him in a maroon & gold uniform next season. Yet he isn't the only sophomore having a big year; as St. Cloud-native and Gopher defenseman Nate Schmidt (a player this blogger suggested the Wild draft the last two years by the way) has been tremendous at both ends of the ice with 2 goals and 26 points. Wausau, Wisconsin-native Nate Condon has been excellent in a 2nd line role (9 goals, 22 points), chipping in offense and using his speed to create openings for his linemates to exploit. Finnish-born forward Erik Haula, Wild prospect, had a torrid start and has been a little erratic since but he's a highly skilled player who is comfortable as a playmaker or a sniper (11 goals, 30 points). Zach Budish (6 goals, 22 points) has been the big-bodied power forward that opposing teams hate he uses his strength to be force near the crease. Blueliners Jake Parenteau, Justin Holl and Mark Alt have also been very solid and been contributors at both ends of the ice. With no offense meant for Taylor Matson, Jake Hansen or Seth Helgeson, the Gophers are a freshman / sophomore dominated team.
5. Kent Patterson has been tremendous ~ In most cases, it doesn't matter how good your skaters are if you have suspect goaltending you don't go far. The Golden Gophers don't have suspect goaltending, they've had tremendous work between the pipes from senior puck stopper Kent Patterson. Patterson's solid play has not forced the Gophers to score a ton just to get him victories, and early on he was absolutely light's out after netting 6 shutouts. As the old hockey adage goes, your best penalty killer has to be your goalie and Patterson is a big reason Minnesota has one of the best penalty kill units in the nation. If Minnesota is going to make any noise in the WCHA playoffs let alone the NCAA's Kent Patterson is going to be key in that effort.
So how far can this team go?
Losses to teams like Michigan State, Northeastern and Notre Dame may provide some level of caution to those fans wanting to buy tickets for a trip to Tampa Bay where the NCAA Frozen Four is being hosted by the soon to be departing Division I program of University of Alabama-Huntsville. Yet I think this team certainly has many of the components you want to see from a team able to make a run. It has the go-to scoring from Bjugstad, Rau, Haula and Hansen and a solid defensive corps that mobile, smart and big. They have the depth that makes them more than one-trick pony and that too is what you find on championship teams.
If this team sticks to its team-focused attack I think this team is capable of winning the WCHA playoffs as well as going far in the NCAA's. With series against Denver, Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha left on the schedule they have their work cut out for them but after sweeping St. Cloud State in a bitter home & home series its a sign this team can win under pressure. They may not be the talk of the town just yet, but they're certainly playing more like the elite program they're supposed to be.