Gopher fans should be excited about the football upset of Iowa. Again. But don't forget about Gopher hockey, who rolled UAA up in Anchorage over the weekend 5-0 and 3-1. Hockey fans have been waiting impatiently for the Gopher program to return to the elite level where they belong, and while we're only about a month into the season, Don Lucia's team is unquestionably playing the best hockey of any team in the WCHA. Through 8 games (conference and non-conference) Minnesota leads all WCHA teams with a whopping 43 goals (5.38 per game) and so does their average of 1.75 goals against per game, which is tied with Colorado College.
So yeah, Minnesota has been that good. What's been really special about this team though has been their top-ranked special teams: their power play is clicking at 35.9% (14-39) and their penalty kill has been stingy at 87.5% (35 for 40). The results are a special teams net of +11. To put that in perspective the next best number in the conference is Nebraska-Omaha at +3.
This looks like a much different, and better, Gopher squad than we've seen in awhile and when you're tops in the Big Four categories, that's definitely a good sign. What's crazy is that this also a much younger Gopher squad than we've seen in, well...when was the last time the Gophers were THIS young? Not only are their top three scorers two sophomores and a freshman...
but seven of their top eight and 13 of their top 15 scorers are also either sophomores of freshmen. Seriously.
My preseason pick for player of the year was soph center Nick Bjugstad, a first round pick of Florida in 2010, who is thus far living up to expectations with six goals and six assists and an impressive +10. He's been a legit first-line center that the coaches can trust in any situation, yet he's only the team's third leading scorer and arguably the second-best center. Second-line pivot Eric Haula, an excellent two-way forward as a freshman last year, has taken a BIG step forward offensively this season with a team leading seven goals, 10 assists, 17 points and 31 shots on goal. He's been pretty good defensively too, matching Bjugstad's +10. Rounding out the top three scorers is true freshman and Eden Prairie native Kyle Rau. All of 5'8 and a buck-73, he's racked up seven goals and six assists, leading the team in game winning goals (3), power play goals (4), and +/- (+12).
The top-scoring defenseman is also an underclassman, but it's none of the candidates we expected. There's no senior D-men on the team and the lone junior, Seth Helgeson, has performed about as expected with two assists, 9 penalties, a +6, and some big hits. Sophomores Mark Alt (1-4-5 +7) and Justin Holl (2-2-4 +5) are a pair of 2nd round draft picks who played quite a bit as freshmen and have been solid in expanded roles. Freshman Ben Marshall was an experienced player from juniors who skates and moves the puck very well, and while he's been excellent, tied with Rau with a +12, he's tallied just a goal and an assist thus far.
No, the leading scorer for Gopher defensemen has been undrafted sophomore Nate Schmidt, who managed just one assist in only 13 games last year. But this season he's tied for fifth in scoring with 11 points (1 goal and 10 assists) and has really stepped up and taken advantage of the playing time opportunity.
But that's not to say the seniors haven't made an impact. Forwards Jake Hansen (3-8-11) and captain Taylor Matson (2-3-5) have been effective leaders on the second and third lines, and last year's team MVP, goalie Kent Patterson? Yeah he's been pretty good again too, with a 1.74 GAA and .939 save percentage, as he's started in all eight games (he's not going to start EVERY game right? Or is he?).
Everybody seems to playing well, or VERY well so far. The only caveat would be the strength of schedule, as the Gophs have only played one team ranked in the top 20 of the USCHO's or Pairwise rankings (UMD). Sure, they haven't played the toughest schedule so far, but they've taken care of business in very convincing fashion, and the schedule ramps up in a hurry in November with matchups against Wisconsin, Michigan State, St Cloud St, and of course North Dakota this weekend.
You get no trophies for being the best team in October, but if the Gophers can continue playing this well, they're going to have a great chance to play for trophies in March for the first time in four years. This looks like the team Gopher fans have been waiting for, and they should be very excited about it. That and the fact Gopher football beat Iowa. Again.