Minnesota’s 5-1 start to the season can be credited to a diverse scoring output, Erik Haula’s nation-leading 14 points or possibly the more-than-solid goaltending by Kent Patterson.
From an all-around skater perspective, Jake Hansen’s transformation into one of the league’s top two-way players has had just as large of an effect on the Gophers’ success to this point.
The senior has 11 points — three goals and eight assists — going into Week 4 of the season. His six-game total last year was one assist, and he floated around the second, third and fourth lines for half the season.
“It’s definitely been a huge difference for me, getting off to a hot start,” Hansen said.
One of Minnesota coach Don Lucia’s line shuffles last season put Hansen with Haula and Jacob Cepis on the Gophers’ first and second lines, and that’s where Hansen’s transformation began. Hansen finished the 2010-11 season with 11 goals and nine assists.
With one more weekend left in the first month, Hansen is halfway to eclipsing that point total.
Lucia kept Hansen and the sophomore Haula (5-9–14) together and added freshman Sam Warning (3-3–6) to make up Minnesota’s top line and, so far, one of the most lethal in the WCHA, maybe the country.
“I got to play with Haula the last half of last year and we developed a pretty good chemistry,” Hansen said.
Hansen is a member of the top unit of the nation’s best power play (36.4 percent) and the WCHA’s second-best penalty kill (87.9 percent). Minnesota is third best in the nation for combined special teams with a success rate of 62.1 percent.
“Playing in the defensive zone and backchecking hard was something I didn’t take serious enough,” Hansen said. “You can’t just be an offensive player, you have to play both ends of the ice and that’s something I finally took more seriously.
“It’s something I take pride in — getting good plus/minus numbers, blocking shots, breaking up plays on the backcheck.”
The Gophers are off to their best start since 2008, when they opened the season 7-0-4. Hansen is a member of a Minnesota senior class in danger of becoming the to go without an NCAA tournament appearance since the late 1960s.
But Hansen said there’s an attitude in the locker room and on the bench that’s been missing the last few years.
“I feel like there was a lot better work ethic over the summer,” Hansen said. “Guys want to win and coming off this start, you can tell the confidence in this group and commitment has changed. It’s definitely been a little different than in years past.”
UNO turns the tables on UAA
Comparing Nebraska-Omaha’s sweep over Alaska-Anchorage this weekend to the Seawolves’ 3-0 shutout of the Mavericks in a nonconference game in Fairbanks, there wasn’t a major difference on the score sheet.
John Faulkner saw it all from the crease, and he said it was the little things that helped UNO.
“We took a whole new attitude going into last weekend and the whole week of practice, we worked on the little details and showed in the games,” said Faulkner, the Mavericks goaltender who stopped 38 of the 40 shots (95 percent) he faced last weekend. “We tried to win all the one-on-one battles and give 110 percent every shift.
“We looked back on how we played up in Alaska and we just wanted to be a tougher team to play against. I thought we did a good job taking care of things defensively this weekend. We didn’t really give up any offensive chances to Alaska and that was one of the biggest adjustments we made.”
Those little things led to shots on goal advantages of 28-19 and 40-21, a category in which the Seawolves held a 35-23 advantage on Oct. 14. Special teams didn’t factor into the score this weekend, with both teams going scoreless on the power play.
Though Alex Hudson didn’t show up in the box score, his return from a team-issued suspension may have sparked something as well after the Mavericks started the season 1-3.
“He’s an impact player and it hurt us not having him in the lineup right away,” Faulkner said. “Obviously, as a senior forward, he’s going to have an impact. Physically, he’s a good presence and he’s an offensive threat.”
CC opens with ‘weird’ schedule
Two exhibition games in two weeks. Sweep Bemidji State at home. Off. Fly out East to face Rensselaer. That’s the first four weeks of Colorado College’s odd schedule.
“It was kind of weird, we had the two exhibition games in two weeks,” said CC captain Gabe Guentzel. “The exhibition games and the off week gave us a chance to work out our kinks. It’s been different and hard to adjust but now we jump in and we start playing games for a while.”
Obviously, the poll voters are still waiting for the Tigers to prove whether they deserve a No. 3 ranking. After two real games, it’s too early to tell.
Jaden Schwartz had four points in those two wins against the Beavers. CC goalie Joe Howe allowed just one goal in 80 minutes.
“People are expecting us to be good but we have to take it with a grain of salt,” Guentzel said. “We have to go out and prove who we are as a team.”
All seven of CC’s upcoming road games are on NHL-sized sheets, and the Tigers are used to playing on the bigger Olympic surface. The Tigers are built on speed, a style to which the big sheet lends itself well.
“It’s obviously different [playing on the smaller sheet],” Guentzel said. “Our coaches have been talking about how RPI is going to play a physical game and try to use the smaller sheet to kind of beat us up a little bit.”
Weekend off comes at ideal time for ailing Mavericks
With Minnesota State not scheduled to play this weekend, coach Troy Jutting is taking the opportunity to go out recruiting for the future. In light of recent events, Jutting might just wish that future was now.
The Minnesota State training room has doubled as a triage unit lately, with nearly one third of the team’s skaters going down over the course of the past two weekends.
Already without senior Michael Dorr, junior Tyler Elbrecht, sophomore J.P. Burkemper, freshman Max Gaede, sophomore Danny Heath and junior Eriah Hayes for their trip to Denver last weekend, the Mavericks lost sophomore Chase Grant in Friday’s game against the Pioneers and freshman Brett Stern on Saturday.
Add it all up and Minnesota State ended the series without five of its top 11 active career scoring leaders in Dorr (17 goals, 25 assists, 42 points), Hayes (19-18–37), Grant (8-12–20), Elbrecht (1-12–13) and Burkemper (3-6–9). Not surprisingly, the Mavericks were swept by the Pioneers.
Others are likely nursing various wounds also as, according to Jutting, 11 players sat out Tuesday’s practice. Jutting said the current rash of injuries is unprecedented in his coaching career.
Although the odds were stacked heavily against them in Denver, the remaining Mavericks players gave the Pioneers all they could handle in the series opener as Zach Lehrke’s goal at 1:17 of the third period tied the game 2-2.
“I thought the kids played extremely hard and gave themselves a chance to win a hockey game against a very good hockey team,” Jutting said. “We ended up losing 4-2 with the empty-net goal, but really [had] a chance all the way down to the end of that game to get a win.”
Unfortunately for Minnesota State, fatigue set in, especially after Stern went down, and Denver rolled to a 10-2 win on Saturday.
“It’s early in the year and we had a short bench and I think that was part of the result on Saturday night,” Jutting said. “We had a short bench Friday night and an even shorter bench on Saturday night and I think we just wore down.”
Denver coach George Gwozdecky agreed.
“Scoring 10 goals was a little bit of an aberration; I know how banged up our opponent was last weekend,” Gwozdecky said in his weekly radio show. “I don’t think that there’s any team in our conference, including ours, that is eight goals better than anybody else.”
Key to Gwozdecky’s success can be found at home
Denver’s 4-2 win over Minnesota State last Friday was Gwozdecky’s 400th at the helm of the Pioneers, and Saturday’s victory gave Gwozdecky 550 wins overall in 25-plus years of coaching NCAA hockey.
Add two NCAA national championships, three WCHA regular-season titles and four WCHA playoff titles and an already-impressive resume becomes legendary.
What has been the key to his success?
“Marry a good lady,” Gwozdecky said of his wife, Bonnie, during his weekly radio show on Tuesday.
“It is so important that in this profession, in coaching, in any sport, the time away from family is so dramatic and unlike anything else,” said Gwozdecky. “You have to be able to have that foundation at home that can take care of the things and can deal with the issues that only coaches deal with.
“Whether it’s game day, whether it’s a long season, whether it’s recruiting, you name it and certainly the No. 1 principle in my life is my wife and my family. To be around long enough to win this many games, it’s rare and to be able to have the same marriage and the same family for that long period of time is even rarer.”
Gwozdecky also expressed appreciation for his daughter, whom he said “is talking trash with me now because she’s a freshman at [Boston University] and she’s a student assistant with the hockey team out there and they beat us a couple weekends ago.”
But much credit was also reserved for the many who have served under Gwozdecky throughout his career, particularly longtime assistant Steve Miller.
“He’s been with me now for over 20 years,” said Gwozdecky. “We are like an old married couple: He knows how I think, I know how he thinks. He’s one of the best recruiters in the country, one of the best coaches on the ice in the country.
“There’s reasons why people are successful and it’s not because they’re geniuses. They have great people with them, great people around them, and you let them do their thing.”
Besides Miller, Gwozdecky mentioned fellow current staff member Derek Lassonde along with former assistants Enrico Blasi (Miami), Seth Appert (Rensselaer) and Derek LaLonde (USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers) as just a few members of the Gwozdecky coaching tree who fit that category.
“[They] have done an absolutely tremendous job over the years bringing in some quality, not only tremendously skilled players, but great character players that understood the expectations and high standards that they have to live by as a DU Pioneer hockey player,” said Gwozdecky. “Those standards are exacting, they’re not easy, but the rewards can be tremendous and when we get it going it can be very magical.”
Players of the week
Offensive: Drew Shore, Denver junior forward
Shore led the Pioneers to a sweep (4-2, 10-2) of Minnesota State with a five-point weekend and a plus-6 plus/minus rating. After notching the game-winning goal on Friday, Shore’s assist on Saturday’s winner was one of four in the game for the Florida Panthers’ prospect.
Defensive: Andrew Walsh, Bemidji State freshman goaltender
Walsh entered his first collegiate game on Friday night against Michigan Tech halfway through the first period with his team trailing 3-1. Not only did the Dawson Creek, British Columbia, native help the Beavers come back for a 6-5 win, Walsh made 31 saves the following night in his first college start.
Rookie: Joel Rumpel, Wisconsin freshman goaltender
Rumpel’s 38 saves on Saturday preserved a 5-4 victory over defending conference champion North Dakota and earned the Badgers a sweep of the visiting Sioux. Rumpel made 15 saves each in the game’s first two periods alone.
USCHO covers the WCHA all week long on the WCHA Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.