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Minnesota Golden Gophers Hockey: Season Review of Don Lucia's Squad at Winter Break

I think there's a good bit of dissatisfaction with the Gophers hockey so far this season. A lot of that has to do with preseason expectations. Let's take stock of the state of the program.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In blogging about NHL teams, there has been an incredible rise in Fancy Stats.  Unfortunately, those types of metrics are not as readily available or as reliable for college hockey, so I'm going to rely on decidedly less-than-fancy stats to build my case for what I think of the Gophers' season to date, and how I think the rest of the season will play out.

Record: 9-4-1 (.679) overall and 1-0-1 (3 pts.) Big Ten

Home Road Neutral
5-1 2-3-1 2-0

Let's open the to page 1 of our College Hockey Bible (don't worry if you have the Catholic version of the College Hockey Bible vs. the King James version, this part's the same [the LDS version will read a bit differently]), and read from Brooks' letter to the Minnesotans, chapter 1, verse 1: "Sweep at home, split on the road."

So far so good in that regard.  With the exception of the disappointing game against Minnesota-Duluth at Mariucci, the Gophers have been lights-out at home.  They're a very tough team to play on the Olympic sheet, apparently.  On the road, they've at least maintained the second part of the mantra, and exceeded it if you view the IceBreaker tournament sweep as an away setting (no home ice advantage).

Even in our wildest dreams of non-stop hockey domination could we have envisioned a season with no losses, so I'll take a very good record against a very good schedule as a sign that things are OK.  According to KRACH, the Gophers have played the 10th most challenging schedule so far, and the 7th most challenging according to RPI.  A .679 winning percentage against that schedule will pay off in the long term.

The Offense

Since the Gophers returned basically all of their offense from last season, we all expected the Gophers to be able to score proficiently this year.  That's certainly held true for most of the games.  Last year, Minnesota averaged 3.49 goals per game; this year, they average 3.43 goals per game, good for 9th best in the nation, and 3rd in the Big Ten behind Penn State and Michigan.  Overall, the offense isn't a concern...

...Except when you look at Minnesota's losses.  Here are the number of goals the Gophers scored in their four losses: 1, 0, 1, and 2.  Average offensive performances in those games likely results in two more games in the win column.  Granted, three of those games were against #9 Minnesota-Duluth and (then) #12 St. Cloud State.  However, to my eye, there are two related factors that were present in all four losses, and I've written about these factors too much already in this still young season.

First, effort.  When they play like they want it, the Gophers are a dominant team.  When they play they don't care as much, they look average.  Go figure.  Despite being one of the better skating teams in college hockey, they lose races to open pucks, fail to create separation from defenders, and don't exit the defensive zone with pace. When they do those things right, they beat Boston College 6-2 in Boston.  When they don't do those things, they lose 3-0 at home to UMD.

Second, related to effort, is sloppy-play.  When they're not skating to their full potential, the Gophers don't pass well.  A successful pass requires effort from both parties, the passer and the receiver.  You need an early, crisp pass from player in good position to another player who is not just in good position now, but who will work to stay in good position through the pass. When the effort isn't there, Minnesota struggles to get the puck through the neutral zone with possession, which makes it awfully hard to score goals.

When the effort is there, Minnesota has no problem establishing a forecheck in the offensive zone and scoring goals.

The occasional lack of effort has manifested itself in a decline in the only statistic that sort-of approximates puck possession: shots on goal.  Last year, Minnesota averaged nearly 34.7 shots on goal per game, meaning they attempted many more than 35 per game.  This year, they're only averaging a little more than 29.4 shots per game, which is a significant difference and demonstrates that the Gophers have held the puck much less this year, meaning less time in the offensive zone, which means fewer scoring chances and a tougher job for Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) and the defense.

Two players from whom we really need to see improved play are Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) and Sam Warning.  Fasching's production has dropped by a full .25 points per game from last season, and he has only five goals in fourteen games.  Warning, who was second on the team with 34 points last year, has lost about .10 points per game off his scoring pace, and also only has five goals in fourteen games.

Connor Reilly has turned into a nice player this season, and has seven goals in those same fourteen games.  I like Connor's game (and his slapshot) a lot, but I never would have expected him to be as, or more, productive than Warning and Fasching.

The Defense

In dealing with the added pressure (I estimate a 16% decrease in the Minnesota's puck possession), the defensive unit has done a pretty good job so far.  They're allowing only 2.14 goals per game, up 0.04 from last season.  That's a commendable performance.

However, effort has also been a problem in the Minnesota defensive zone.  When Minnesota struggles to exit the zone, it's because the player with the puck is generally standing flat-footed and telegraphs a pass to a forward gliding out of the zone rather than working to the puck. Some teams have caught on to this tendency and exploited it, stepping into the passing lane and turning the play back towards Wilcox.

There have also been instances or blown coverages in the defensive end that have not been pretty, but that's going to happen from time to time.  The key is to minimize, and the Gophers generally do a really good job in that regard.  Also, they have Adam Wilcox to bail them out from time to time, so that's nice.

For his part, Wilcox has played very well.  He has three shutouts already on the year, and with his career-high saves mark set Saturday night against Michigan State, he's pushed his save percentage to .926.   I have no concerns for the goaltender.

Special Teams

Minnesota's power play has been outstanding, and they're clipping along at 34.0% success rate, easily the best in the nation.  Harvard is a distant second at 30.23%.  The power play has been so good that it accounts for more than 35% of the total offense, and it's masked some of the shortcomings of the 5-on-5 offense and the decrease in puck possession.  The worst thing an opponent could do is put the Gophers on the power play.  Travis Boyd is healthy once again, making the Gophers that much more potent.

The penalty kill isn't playing at a terribly high level, allowing goals on 17.5% of attempts.  Nothing to write home about.  The PK has also been called upon far too often, nearly five kills per game.  This brings me again to sloppy, effortless play that results in a lot of penalties.  Last year, the Gophers only gave 138 power plays to opponents in the entire year (3.37 per game).  So far this year, they've been short-handed 63 times in just 14 games.

In fact, last year, the Gophers had 35 more power play attempts than penalty kills.  This year?  50 power plays vs. 63 penalty kills.  Turning that number around will be extremely important in the second half of the season and the post season.  Luckily, effort is the answer to both increasing power play opportunities and decreasing penalty kills.

The Big Picture

Though sentiments around the program are down right now and there's a lot of room for improvement all over the ice, Minnesota still has a very good record against a very good schedule, so there's no need to for anyone to panic.  Conference play has barely started, and lots of games remain on the schedule.

Of course I would like to see the team playing at a higher level, and I'd definitely like to feel like their hearts were in it every game.

The little skid we've seen from the team (if you can call it a skid) has to with some poor efforts, a couple slumping players and the injuries to Boyd and Brady Skjei (New York Rangers).  A few weeks off followed by a long stretch of weekends with games could be just what this team needs to start firing on all cylinders again and get into playoff shape.

Also, playing the heart of the Big Ten schedule should help the old Win/Loss record.  There are only four remaining non-conference games left on the schedule.