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  • Golden Gophers have golden touch Print
    Futures Watch
    Written by Steve Wozniak   
    Friday, 11 November 2011 04:40

    Finally, the results are matching the talent and hype for the storied Minnesota men's hockey team. It's all due to a senior goalie and a great batch of underclassmen. 

    Steve WozniakLess than a year ago, the alarms were sounding in Minneapolis.

    The University of Minnesota hockey team was in the midst of another lackluster season, en route to missing the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year. Facebook pages and blogs demanding the firing of coach Don Lucia were popping up like spam.

    A team that much like powers North Dakota and Michigan, had enough pro-caliber talent to be a de facto AHL squad, was severely underperforming.

    A year later, those pages and blogs are quiet.

    The Golden Gophers are atop every major poll in the country, Lucia recently signed a contract extension to stay in the Twin Cities and all of the high-end talent is dominating as it should.

    Gophers netminder Kent Patterson, a fourth-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche in 2007, has been the driving force. Last Friday, he tied a school record with his fifth shutout of the season nine games into the season.

    And the man whose record he tied? Robb Stauber, who along with Ryan Miller is one of two goalies to win the Hobey Baker Award. Patterson has described Stauber as a friend and mentor.

    “So far, so good. It’s a long season,” Lucia pointed out this week as a refreshingly large horde of media descended on the Minneapolis campus this week ahead of the Gophers’ border battle with Wisconsin. “He had a great season last year. Let’s not forget that he was a second-team all-WCHA goalie last year. His play in the second half helped us become a better team in the second half of last year. He’s taken off where he’s left off.”

    Indeed, Patterson did start to put together a decent year after taking over for the injured Alex Kangas last season. He finished that campaign with a 14-9-6 record, 2.54 goals-against average and .919 save percentage – not overwhelming numbers, but a huge improvement over the 2-4-1 record and 3.10 GAA he posted in his sophomore year.

    “The team’s been on a great roll, guys have been finding their roles and playing into their roles,” Patterson said with a calm and carefree tone. “The defense has been letting me see the first shots, but they do a real good job of clearing out the second shots.”

    Patterson is correct.

    The blue line, which has exactly one upperclassmen and four
    NHL prospects, deserves a lot of credit. The Gophers gave up 46 shots in each of their victories over defending champion Minnesota-Duluth, but have not given up more than 26 in any other game.

    “He’s quiet. He doesn’t get very high or very low. That’s his nature,” Lucia said of his senior goalie. “I think some of our young defensemen that didn’t play a lot last year like Nate Schmidt and Jake Parenteau have done a nice job so far, but they’re going to make some mistakes. Nick BjugstadThey’re going to; they don’t have a lot of experience. They dig in pretty good and they’re pretty strong physically, and I think that element of their game has helped us.”

    But a defense giving up less than two goals a game is not the only reason Minnesota is pounding its opponents. The offense, which averaged just 3.14 goals per game last season, is potting the puck an average of 4.8 times a game this time around.

    That improvement has come from a slew of sophomores not slumping but thriving in their second years. Leading scorer Erik Haula and fellow sophomores Nick Bjugstad, Schmidt and Zach Budish are each averaging more than a point per game. Seven players are on pace to net at least a dozen goals this year.

    All of which has brought inescapable attention to the team for the first time in years.

    “We’re the top team in the nation,” says Patterson, “so we’re going to get other teams’ best efforts every weekend.”

    Photo by Getty Images

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    Last Updated on Friday, 11 November 2011 20:23