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Minnesota Golden Gopher Hockey: What's Wrong with the Gopher Men's Hockey Team

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The college hockey world entered this season with the Golden Gophers as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship. But the season is half-over, and it looks like Minnesota might not even reach the NCAA tournament without winning the Big Ten Tournament. What's going on here?

The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered the season with high expectations, high hopes, and tons of external pressure to perform.  They bull-rushed through the first eight games of the season, winning seven of those games (three against ranked opponents).

Then the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs delivered a withering blow to the Gophers season: a home-and-home sweep that was apparently so confidence shattering that Minnesota hasn't yet truly recovered.  Including the two losses to UMD, the Gophers have stumbled through 3-6-1 stretch that included a loss to Northeastern, a loss to Merrimack, and most recently another swept weekend, this time at the hands of Big Ten rival Michigan.

So what's different between this year and last year.  Well, take a look at situational win percentages.

Win % When 2013-14 2014-15
Scoring First 80.77% 50.00%
Scoring Second 66.67% 71.43%
Out-Shooting Opponent 79.63% 81.82%
Out-Shot by Opponent 65.38% 21.43%
1-Goal Games 83.33% 42.86%
Home 87.50% 75.00%
Away 64.29% 31.25%
Neutral 64.29% 100.00%
Overtime 57.14% 62.50%

A variety of numbers should jump out at you.  Let's take them one-by-one.

Scoring first no longer matters.  When you're not playing good defense, getting an early lead doesn't matter.   Last year, if the Gophers scored first, it meant the opponents had one hell of a mountain to climb.  This year, especially recently, it hasn't meant practically anything.  What's weird is this: say the other team spotted the Gophers a goal before the game.  The other team would still win 50% of those games.

You would expect the Gophers to win more than 50% of games in that situations, which is roughly analogous to scoring first.  They're actually below-average when they score the first goal.  Very odd considering they're winning over 70% of games in which they allow the first goal (of seven losses, only two losses came with the opponent scoring first).  It's a bizarre statistic.

Next, when an opponent out-shoots Minnesota, the opponent wins about 80% of the time.  This number illustrates the most obvious difference between last season and this season: last year the Gophers possessed the puck well, this year, they haven't.  I can't even remember how many times the word "sloppy" has been written this year.  I don't even know if it was in last year's lexicon.

The next statistic ties into the lack of puck possession.  In one goal games, Minnesota used to win more than 80% of the time.  They would suffocate teams in the offensive zone to prevent scoring chances.  Now that possession is a big issue, they're losing almost sixty percent of games decided by one goal.

Last year, Minnesota out-shot opponents by 18%.  This year, just a hair under 13%. Extrapolated out over a full season, that works out to about 120 fewer shots on goal for the the Gophers.  Scoring at 10% rate, that's 12 fewer goals (and six goals through the first half of the season).  That doesn't sound like a big number, but when you're half way through the season, and you've already lost four one-goal games, those six goals would have made a big difference.

Not surprisingly, most of the trouble has occurred on the road.  Minnesota is only winning road games at half the rate of last season.

I think I've effectively laid out the case that the lack of puck possession is sinking Minnesota's season.  And here's where it shows up definitively.

2013-2014 2014-2015 Difference
Minnesota Goals Per Game 3.49 3.39 -0.10
Opponent Goals Per Game 2.10 2.56 +0.46

Poor puck possession is leading to more goals against.  So who's to blame?  Let's look first at the goaltending, which was sub par last weekend.  Is the problem Adam Wilcox?  Partly.  He his percentage is down 0.022 compared to last year.  That's not a huge difference and if you've watched, you know that he's been hung out to dry on odd-man rushes far more often than he should.

I'm placing the recent struggles on team defense, which isn't performing at nearly the same level as last year.  Some of it comes from sloppiness in the offensive zone.  You can't have an odd-man rush at your goalie without something going wrong in the other end of the ice.  It's even worse when you struggle to exit the defensive zone.

All of the defenseman have struggle at different times.  Mike Reilly is extremely important for his offensive abilities, but he's made a few critical turnovers that have led to goals against.  His fellow upperclassmen share responsibility as well.  Sometimes it's hard to find Ben Marshall on the ice or notice him making an impact.  Brady Skjei has missed a few games due to injury, which forced the team to rely on a group of really young defenders.

Sophomore Michael Brodzinski is having a pretty good year in the points column.  I haven't noticed him much on the defensive side of the ice.  The real problem (especially in the series against Michigan), is that the three freshman defenders have been thrown into the fire and have not responded with strong performances.  Steve Johnson, Jack Glover, and Ryan Collins will probably all have fine careers, they all have talent, but they struggled against Michigan's speed and transitional offense.

I didn't start this article with the intention of piling on to a group of freshman, but the defense is the most glaring weakness at this point.  Experience will help, the more games the young defenders play, the more the team can expect from them.

Puck possession is also a function of how well the offense is functioning.  There's been a slight drop-off in scoring which aligns to the drop-off in shots on goal.  Possessing the puck well while playing offense will prevent the odd-man rushes that the defenders have not defended well.

I'll get to the offensive production in another post.  For now, I think I have the cure for what ails the Gophers: A weekend series at home against the dreadful Wisconsin Badgers.  Let's hope for a Battle Hymn weekend.