College Hockey Weekly: The Gophers' Incredible Start

The last three years, we've seen quite the odd thing in college hockey.

While Minnesota-based teams have made NCAA Tournament noise (UMD made two of three, making a regional final at Mariucci Arena in 2009 and winning the national title last year, while St. Cloud State won its first-ever NCAA game in 2010), the state's flagship institution has sat silent.

The University of Minnesota is not used to sitting silent in men's hockey. The Gophers won national titles in 2002 and 2003, don't miss the NCAA Tournament often, and certainly aren't used to losing home playoff series to Alaska-Anchorage when faced with a win-or-go-home scenario.

After a notable change on the coaching staff -- one that didn't involve oft-criticized head coach Don Lucia -- the Gophers appear poised to right the ship in 2011-12, as they are one of college hockey's hottest teams out of the gate.

Minnesota's wins over Sacred Heart to start the season impressed virtually no one, because they came against Sacred Heart, one of the lower-rung programs Division I has to offer.

The Gophers' WCHA sweep of UMD the following weekend raised eyebrows, but the Gophers were badly outshot on the weekend, especially in Saturday's game, and I'm still not sure they were looked at as a real threat to contend.

Now that Minnesota has added a road sweep of Alaska-Anchorage, I'm not expecting everyone to fawn over this team like it's the second coming of the early-1990s Maine Black Bears. However, it's hard to justify ignoring a team that is 7-1 overall, 4-0 in league play, and is averaging over five goals a game through its first eight.

To lay out the keys to Minnesota's success would be to stand the risk of forgetting a key cog, but I'll try my best to avoid that. Wild draft pick Erik Haula leads the team (and the nation) with 17 points. Former Minnesota Mr. Hockey Kyle Rau has 13 points. Last year's much-balleyhooed freshman, Nick Bjugstad, has 12 points and has impressed with his two-way play as he grows into his body.

Defenseman Nate Schmidt has been a power-play star, totaling 11 points so far (he had one point all of last season).

Oh, and goalie Kent Patterson allowed eight goals in two games against UMD, coughed up five in a loss to Vermont, and still has a 1.74 goals against and .939 save percentage in eight starts. So, yeah, he's pretty good, too.

Lucia bumped John Hill off the staff during the offseason, deciding to bring back long-time assistant Mike Guentzel. That move has paid dividends, as Guentzel is widely-respected around college hockey for the work he can do with defensemen. It's not a coincidence that Minnesota's still-youthful blue line continues to improve game by game.

Sweeping UAA might not seem impressive, but the Seawolves started 3-0-1 after two weekend tournaments in Alaska, and they were competitive in a two-game road series with Nebraska-Omaha. Instead of getting on track in league play, Minnesota sent UAA reeling to an 0-4 WCHA start. Having Patterson only permit one goal in the two games was a huge part of the weekend sweep.

Minnesota might not keep this up all season (five goals per game and a 36 percent power play are probably not sustainable long-term in the WCHA), but they've clearly established themselves as a serious threat in the league, something they have failed to do in recent years.

Minnesota Duluth 6, Bemidji State 2; Minnesota Duluth 1, Bemidji State 0

UMD fell behind 2-0 on Friday before coach Scott Sandelin called a timeout. It wasn't a "Mike Yeo yells at the Aeros for falling behind 3-0 to Milwaukee" moment. Instead, Sandelin wanted to make sure his players didn't panic after playing well and falling behind.

On the next shift, UMD tallied to cut the lead in half. Before the first period was over, the game was tied. UMD would score twice in each period, getting goals from six different players in a win that saw them outshoot BSU 40-17.

Saturday, Bemidji adjusted and played a style much more like what they tend to play. Keeping the Bulldogs at bay for much of the night, BSU had a few chances to take the lead, including a Brance Orban penalty shot that was stopped by UMD senior goalie Kenny Reiter.

Bulldog captain Jack Connolly scored a power-play goal in the third period, and Reiter pitched his eighth collegiate shutout.

St. Cloud State 4, North Dakota 0; North Dakota 3, St. Cloud State 1

When SCSU starting goaltender Mike Lee went down with an injury and couldn't make the trip to Grand Forks, the job was left to freshman Ryan Faragher. All Faragher did was throw a 44-save shutout at the Fighting Sioux in their home rink Friday. His 67-save weekend earned him WCHA Rookie of the Week honors.

North Dakota earned the split Saturday thanks to a workmanlike performance in which they finally broke the ice on Faragher in the second period, and they never trailed in the game. By winning, the Fighting Sioux avoided what would have been their first 0-4 WCHA start ever.

St. Cloud State hasn't said anything about Lee's condition, outside of the fact that he suffered a lower-body injury in practice last week. It sounds like Faragher will start the games against Wisconsin this weekend.

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