The beginning of the 2013-14 season brought questions for Minnesota, which lost juniors Mark Alt, Nick Bjugstad, Zach Budish, Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt to the pros after last season. That’s two veteran defensemen and three forwards — Budish, Bjugstad and Haula — who scored 51 of Minnesota’s 139 goals.
As November begins, though, no one is questioning the Golden Gophers’ potential this season. For the second consecutive week, Minnesota received all 50 votes in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, off to a 5-0-1 start after an impressive weekend against visiting Boston College two weeks ago.
“So far, so good,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said, “but it is a long season.”
Lucia said that he and his assistants had an inkling that this year’s Gophers would perform well before the season began. “I’m watching practice and I’m thinking that they look pretty good,” said Lucia, “but you never know until you play.”
Even with the loss of five key players, Lucia said that there were a couple of reasons for the Gophers to be cautiously optimistic at the beginning of the current season.
“I think it’s a couple things,” he said. “One, Adam Wilcox returned from last year so we were set in net.”
As a freshman in 2012-13, Wilcox had a 1.88 GAA and .921 save percentage with a 25-8-5 record; Wilcox has played every game this season with 1.64 and .938 statistics.
“Second,” said Lucia, “is that we did have five veteran defensemen return, and Justin Holl, we knew we were going to return him back to D.”
While it is early in the season and Big Ten play hasn’t yet begun, it’s still significant to note that Minnesota is second nationally in scoring defense, allowing 1.67 goals per game.
Third, said Lucia, is that other players would have to emerge and realize a greater potential. “Michael Reilly and Brady Skjei had to take a step and they did this year,” he said.
Both sophomore defensemen are capable of scoring and each has already equaled his goal-scoring output of a season ago. Reilly has three, Skjei has one.
Offensively, several players have picked up where Budish, Bjugstad and Haula left off. “Kyle Rau has made a pretty seamless transition back to center, a position he played his whole life,” said Lucia. “We knew, too, that if our freshmen could score right away, it was going to go a long way toward replacing what we lost.”
Rau, a junior, has a goal, and seven rookies have accounted for a dozen of Minnesota’s 29 overall goals.
Rau plays on the same line with freshman Hudson Fasching and junior Sam Warning, whose season is off to a career start.
“At the beginning of the year, Kyle came up and said he wanted to play with Sam,” said Lucia. “They’re classmates and close off the ice. We wanted to play a big body with them and Hudson, we gave him the opportunity.”
The result is a powerful line. In six games, Warning — who played with an injured shoulder last season — has netted five goals and seven assists. Warning had eight goals in 29 games last year and six in 39 games in 2011-12. Fasching has three goals as well.
Lucia said that it’s always difficult for top programs to fill the void left by early departures, especially now that some programs — like Minnesota and Michigan — lose top talent on an annual basis. It’s something that’s changed the way the Gophers recruit.
“One of the things we’ve addressed is trying to recruit good college players,” said Lucia, who made the distinction between recruiting for professional potential and for solid college play. He also said that the Gophers have added smaller, quicker players. “It was a conscious effort on our part. As much as we can, we build a foundation of kids.”
That foundation of kids, it’s implied, are the kids who will stay.
Before taking last weekend off, the Gophers were impressive in different ways in a 3-3 tie with and a 6-1 win over Boston College. Minnesota led in the tie 2-0 until roughly midway through the first period, when the Eagles scored three goals in a span of 77 seconds. Freshman forward Taylor Cammarata’s second goal of the season tied it up in the second period.
After the first period, “The game kind of settled in,” said Lucia. “It was a heck of a game. There were people here that said it was the best game they’d seen here in a decade.”
In the 6-1 Sunday win, the Gophers led 4-0 after the first period but Lucia said that the score wasn’t indicative of the game. “Adam made some critical saves,” said Lucia.
This weekend, the No. 1 Gophers face No. 4 Notre Dame in a two-game series in South Bend.
“This will be our first real strong road test, a good gauge this weekend,” said Lucia. “We had a lot of Minnesota fans in the Bemidji crowd.”
Lucia said that contrast of playing styles between the Golden Gophers and Fighting Irish is pretty stark. Minnesota wants to fly, while Notre Dame can deliberately slow down a game.
“They’re a very structured team,” said Lucia. “They don’t beat themselves. They’re very content to play a game that’s tight. They’re a good team. They’re obviously well coached.”
Those games are Friday and Saturday, with Friday’s 8:05 p.m. EST start televised on NBC Sports Network.
Buckeyes recovering from a rocky start
After an 0-3 start to the season, Ohio State is 4-4 following a home split against No. 20 Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, and the Buckeyes are 4-1 in their last five, a quintet of games played in a nine-day span from Oct. 25 through Nov. 2.
“No one wants to start out 0-3,” said coach Steve Rohlik. “Our guys, we knew we had a good team. We’ve got a great group in the locker room, but we knew that nothing was going to be easy.”
The season began to look up for the Buckeyes with their home-and-home sweep of Robert Morris, followed by a Tuesday night (Oct. 29) 5-3 home win over Bowling Green, a team to whom they’d lost on Oct. 15.
“We kind of grinded out three wins there,” said Rohlik. “We found a way to win. We weren’t playing, I don’t think, great. And then the last few days here we kind of communicated that. It’s going to take all of us and it’s going to take hard work. We can’t just show up and turn on a switch.”
In the days between OSU’s Tuesday win over BGSU and the series against Minnesota-Duluth, Rohlik said he saw a difference in his team.
“They made a decision to do that,” he said. “It started in practice the other day and I think it carried it over this weekend. I think we’ve learned a lot about our team, especially in the last five days.”
Even though they lost 3-1 Friday to Minnesota-Duluth before taking Saturday’s 4-2 win, Rohlik said, “All in all, I think it was the best weekend that we put together.”
One key to overcoming a slow start, said senior Alex Szczechura, was the faith that the team had in itself.
“After those first three games,” said Szczechura, “we knew we had a great team. We knew we just had to stick with it in practice, keep working hard, doing the simple things that coach really preached to us.”
Junior Nick Oddo said that the Buckeyes will be fine as long as they stick to “the little things.”
“Some of the best seasons start off with rough patches,” said Oddo. “You just want to keep getting better throughout the year and peak at the right time. I think we’re on the right path. We’re just getting better every day and worrying about ourselves and toward the end, I think it’ll all come together and we’ll have a good season.”
The Buckeyes are struggling defensively, offering up 3.75 goals per game compared to the 2.40 per game they averaged last season, 13th best in the nation, in front of senior Brady Hjelle. To complicate matters, sophomore goaltender Collin Olson has left the team because he’s seeking more playing time. Freshman Matt Tomkins (3.03 GAA, .901 save percentage) has played seven of OSU’s nine games.
The Buckeyes seem to be moving the puck better this season. OSU is scoring on average 3.38 goals per game, compared to the 2.38 goals per game the Buckeyes averaged in 2012-13.
Favorite quote of the week
This comes from Mike Eaves, after Wisconsin thumped Lake Superior State 8-1 on Saturday. The Badgers and the Lakers had skated to a 3-3 tie the night before.
“It’s a nice way to end a weekend,” he said. “I think that’s what the doctor ordered for a lot of our guys.”
Players of the week
I like the three stars format of the Big Ten players of the week. I like it even more this week, as more than just forwards are honored.
First star — Wisconsin senior forward Tyler Barnes: Barnes had two goals and two assists in Wisconsin’s tie against and win over Lake Superior State, including two third-period goals in the tied game — and the game-tying goal itself. Barnes has three goals on the season.
Second star — Michigan freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort: This is the second time this season that Nagelvoort has been honored, and justifiably so. In Michigan’s home sweep of Michigan Tech, Nagelvoort posted a .949 save percentage; he made 34 saves in the Wolverines’ 3-2 overtime win Friday night. Nagelvoort is second in the country for GAA (1.47) and third for save percentage (.948).
Third star — Wisconsin senior defenseman Joe Faust: Faust was plus-5 in Wisconsin’s tie and win versus Lake Superior State last weekend. He had an assist in the third period of Friday’s 3-3 tie and recorded his first career multi-point game Saturday with three assists. In 42 games last season, Faust had one goal and no assists; through six games so far this year, he has six points, all assists.
4. Notre Dame
5. Boston College
6. St. Cloud State
8. North Dakota
14. Lake Superior State
15. New Hampshire
17. Boston University
18. St. Lawrence
20. Ferris State
I struggle with parts of the poll all season long, but especially with the bottom six or seven this early in the season.
And I’m not ashamed to admit that I still check for “my” teams — i.e., CCHA teams — when the poll is published on Mondays. Is it wrong of me to feel warm and fuzzy for Notre Dame, Michigan, Miami, Lake Superior and Ferris State this week?
Next week, my partner-in-writing, Drew Claussen, has the column while I’ve have the Monday blog. We’ll post picks on Friday.
Thanks to all of my new followers on Twitter, most of whom are Minnesota and Wisconsin fans. I look forward to interacting with you and — yes — I can take the heckling.