Gophers rediscover offenseDon Lucia has some ugly memories of this week. A year ago at this time, he learned that standout forward Zach Budish got in amoped accident and was out for the year. Meanwhile, star freshman Nick Bjugstad came down with mononucleosis and forward Nick Larson was injured in practice.
By: By Brad Schlossman, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Don Lucia has some ugly memories of this week. A year ago at this time, he learned that standout forward Zach Budish got in amoped accident and was out for the year. Meanwhile, star freshman Nick Bjugstad came down with mononucleosis and forward Nick Larson was injured in practice. “Just like that, boom,” the University of Minnesota coach said. The Gophers waddled to an 11-11-6 finish, got swept by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs and missed the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. Fast forward one year and times are a lot happier for the Gophers. They’ve been void of injuries, earned a No.5 national ranking with a 7-1 start, and they’ve suddenly found an offensive power that’s been dormant during the last four seasons.
Minnesota ranks first nationally in offense, averaging 5.38 goals per game. The Gophers rank first nationally in scoring margin, beating their opponents by 3.62 goals a night. They have the country’s top power play, converting at a 35.9 percent clip.
Individual players have been just as successful.
Erik Haula ranks first nationally in points with 17. Kyle Rau ranks first nationally in goals (seven) and points (13) by a rookie. And Nate Schmidt ranks first nationally in points bya defenseman with 11.
“We have the hot hand right now,” said Budish, who is one of seven Gopher players averaging at least a point per game. “It starts with us getting some goals from in front of the net, taking away the goalie’s eyes. I don’t think we rely on one line to score, either. Our power play is clicking right now and when we get powerplay goals, it helps us get momentum.”
Minnesota’s offense should provide a stiff test for UND, which has had mixed results defensively this season.
Although the Sioux return a handful of defensive regulars and the starting goaltender from last year’s MacNaughton and Broadmoor Cup champion team, they’ve allowed opponents to score 3.5 goals per game, which ranks 10th among 12 league teams
“We’ve got to be ready to go on the back end,” said UND senior Ben Blood, the team’s top defenseman. “It will be a good challenge for us— for the six (defensemen) in the lineup and for the goalies. We have the guys to do it. We have the guys to go down there and have a successful weekend and keep their offense to a minimum.”
Nobody has been able to hold down Minnesota’s offense yet. The Gophers have scored in 24 of the 25 periods they’ve played in this season. The only scoreless frame came in the third period of a 6-0 win against Vermont.
They’ve tallied at least five goals in six of eight games.
It has been a big change for the Gophers, who have finished seventh or lower among WCHA teams in offense in three of the last four years.
“It starts with specialty teams,” Lucia said. “The power plays has gotten off to a nice start. We’ve got some chemistry between the units. Five on five, we’ve scored pretty well, too. We’ve been able to get some separation goals. Instead of it being a one-goal game, we’ve been able to get timely goals to get separation.
“We know we have a young team, and when we’ve made mistakes, we’ve had (goalie) Kent Patterson to cover some of them up. We feel really good about where we’re at. We knew we had seven of our first nine conference games on the road. To start out 4-0 is good.”
Although the Sioux are aware that they will have to face Minnesota’s potent offense, they haven’t watched a ton of film early in the week. Instead, it has been spent breaking down last weekend’s split against St. Cloud State.
“We’ve been so focused on us, evaluating the things we’re doing well and the things we need to improve on,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “Defensively, I thought we showed improvement (last weekend). We’re still not where we need to be, but Ithought we showed some reasonable improvement from the week before.”
Schlossman is a sports writer for the Grand Forks Herald