Nick Bjugstad, Mike Guentzel are some big reasons for Minnesota Gopher hockey's first half success

Merry Christmas- and Happy Boxing Day! Let's talk some Gopher puck with a look at the positives, and a very few negatives, from the first semester. When the expectations were as low as they were to start the season, and the Gophers currently sit in first place in the WCHA and second in the national rankings, there's not going to be much to complain about in the mid-season review. In fact, let's just get the few negatives/disappointments/need work on I can find out of the way first...

Friday Curse continues

After a stellar first month and a bit when the Gophs won 10 of their first 11 games, their Friday Night Funk returned, as they've lost four of their past five Friday night games. I wrote an entire post on how the past five seasons Minnesota have played worse on Fridays than on Saturday or Sunday, so I'm not going into it all again. The Friday Funk still makes me nervous, but people much smarter than me have assured me it's nothing to worry about, so I will try not to.

Penalties

For the glass half full people, Minnesota has the second best penalty-kill in the WCHA (83.7%) and arguably the best goalie in the land. For the glass half empty people (...raises hand...) those elements are being tested far too often, as Minnesota has been a man short 92 times this year, second only to Minnesota State's whopping 105. The Gophs are committing too many penalties right now, at an average of 15.8 PIM per game. They've gotten away with it thus far, but I'd love to see less penalties and more disciplined play. I feel like too many of these are because they get out-hustled and reach or clutch or grab.

Nick Bjugstad

All he's done is be the best player in college hockey thus far. No big deal, especially for a sophomore. Assuming his shoulder heals, he'll continue his dominance in the World Juniors the next two weeks where he'll likely end up on a Minnesota-inspired top line with Wild draft picks Jason Zucker of Denver and Charlie Coyle of BU Saint Johns, and the three will light up the long, cold prairie nights in Alberta. Bjugstad will be the team leader, probably make first team all-tourney, then return to the Gophs and tear it up again in the second half.

Why is he a negative then? Because he's playing his way right out of Dinkytown into hockey-mad South Florida with the NHL Florida Panthers. He's playing TOO well right now! Ok, ok Nick's play is obviously a positive and not a negative, it just sucks this is the last year we'll see him in a Gopher uniform. Enjoy it while it lasts, Gopher fans.

And that, friends, is about all I can find for negatives. Positives? Egads, where to begin? Well besides Bjugstad's incredible play, I can think of a few more...

Kent Patterson

Last year he was arguably the best goalie in the WCHA. This year he's arguably the best goalie in the NCAA. Yes he's technically second in GAA and save % behind Bemidji's Andrew Walsh, but Patterson has played 3 times the minutes, and has faced twice the shots and saves. He's been incredible and has kept the Gophers in some games they had no business winning. You need a great goalie to make a playoff run, and the Gophers have it. Unlike last year, they also have a team in front of him to go with it.

Mike Guentzel

The once former and now current Gopher defense coach has worked wonders with a young and relatively inexperienced group. Is it a coincidence that Guentzel leaving in 2008 is right about the time the defensive play went in the tank and the slide to mediocrity began? He's taken a group with zero seniors and one junior, and has them playing some of the best defensive hockey in the WCHA. The Gophers have allowed the least goals a game (just 41 in 20 games) and have the second best PK. Yes, Patterson gets some of the credit for that, but remember he stood on his head last year too and the defensive stats weren't near this good. To be great you do need a great goalie, but you also need the defensemen playing well in front of him, and that's what's happening right now. We've even seen an offensive defenseman emerge, and it wasn't who we predicted at the beginning of the year- would you believe sophomore Nate Schmidt is FOURTH (!!) on the team in scoring right now with 21 points? Sure he only has one goal, but 20 assists don't just happen by accident. He played sparingly last year as a freshman, but has really come on thus far under Guentzel.

Kyle Rau

We knew the kid from Eden Prairie would be good, but 22 points in 20 games good? Through 20 games he's the third highest point getter on the Gophs, and tied for 12th in the entire conference. Not too shabby for a 5'8 freshman, no? Rau found instant chemistry with Bjugstad and winger Zach Budish, and has found a home in the slot just off the right post where the goals just keep coming. He's been so impressive, he basically walked on to Team USA's World Juniors squad, garnering a spot on the prestigious club (which begins play tonight against Denmark in what should be a lopsided ass-whooping). He's not the biggest, nor the fastest and doesn't have the hardest shot, but just watch a Gopher game (or, if you have the opportunity, a Team USA game. By the way, for fantastic coverage of Team USA and the entire tournament, be sure to check out SB Nation's Puck Worlds for previews of every country, including the good ol' U-S-of-A) and you can't help but notice him because he's EVERYWHERE! His hockey IQ is off the charts, he hits, he skates, and just always seems to be in the right spot. He's been a joy to watch, and if he can gain some more confidence at the World Juniors the next couple of weeks, I can't wait to see what the second semester brings for him.

Jake Hansen and Taylor Matson

The only two senior skaters on the squad with regular playing time, they've done everything you could ask. Hansen is fifth in team scoring (19 points), fourth in goals (8), has a solid +12, and has been an aggressor on the ice with 33 penalty minutes (third on the team). He might take the odd bad penalty, but it's worth the trade off of his physical play. You need somebody on the wings mixing it up in the difficult areas, and at 6'1 and just a buck-91, Hansen's been a willing and able participant. Matson was named captain back in the spring, and you can't give him enough credit for accepting the role he has. How many senior captains on a VERY young team would willingly be the team's third line center and get limited PP minutes? It shows Matson's humility, work ethic, and definitely leadership that he's embraced the role and thrived. A true captain doesn't have to be your best player, but he needs to lead from whatever role he's playing and Matson has done that. He won't be a top scorer, and won't make any end of season all-star teams, but he'll be a key reason for whatever success this squad has.

Erik Haula

He's tailed off since his incredible first month when he led the entire nation in scoring, but Haula gives the Gophers an embarrassment of riches down the middle. When Matson is your third center, Bjugstad is your first, it means Haula and his 25 points can be your second line center, power play guy, top penalty killer, and whatever else you need him to be. We'll see how is second half goes and if he can maintain this scoring pace, but his scoring threat needs to continue for the Gophers to have success.

The rest of the sophomores

We've already mentioned Bjugstad, Haula, and Schmidt, but don't forget about the rest of the sophomore class that's really anchoring this team. Budish and Nate Condon have been excellent as top 6 forwards, Tom Serratore has been fantastic as a fourth-liner, and Mark Alt and Justin Holl have been rock-solid defensemen. That's the scary thing about this team: they'll likely lose Bjugstad to the pros, but the rest of these guys are coming back next year- and they'll only be JUNIORS!

The rest of the freshmen

Rau was the headliner, but he's far from the only first-year player who's contributing. Sam Warning, Travis Boyd, and Seth Ambroz have all slotted in nicely in their roles, and are getting chances to develop and contribute without having to carry major responsibilities. I know more was expected of Ambroz, but this is a good spot for him right now. There were some who expected him to be the top-line scorer Rau has already become, and maybe he'll develop into that down the road, but for right now, a role outside of the top 6 gets him a chance to learn the college game without having to worry about carrying much of the scoring burden. On defense Ben Marshall has been good at both ends playing as a top 4 d-man and garnering some power-play time. He only has six points so far, but with his skating and offensive ability, a break-out second semester is very possible for him.

Head coach Don Lucia

Last, and certainly not least, we have to give credit to Lucia. A team predicted to finish middle of the pack who is tops in the conference thus far means the head coach is pushing all the right buttons. A man who won two national championships doesn't forget how to coach, but we (ok, I) was starting to wonder after the past four Gopher seasons saw some very mediocre results. But Joel Maturi's dedication and, um, "patience" with his coach is paying off so far, as Lucia has the Minnesota program back competing for conference titles and runs to the Frozen Four, not clinging to home ice in the first round of the WCHA's. If his team continues to play this well, Lucia will be up for conference coach of the year honors, and it'll be well deserved. There's a LOT of reasons for Minnesota's success thus far, but if the failures of a program falls at the feet of its head coach, then so too do the successes. And it's been a very successful first semester for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

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