Defensive unit trying to regroup

by Mark Remme

Based on the way Minnesota’s men’s hockey team has shut teams down defensively this year, last weekend’s showdown with St. Cloud State looked like a completely different squad.

The Gophers exploded onto the defensive scene prior to last weekend’s two-tie performance against the Huskies, never allowing more than five goals in an entire weekend.

That changed with five goals allowed on Friday night alone against St. Cloud State, emphasized by blowing a two-goal lead in the third period.

“As a D-core, we didn’t play that well,” freshman defenseman Erik Johnson said. “This weekend is all about restoring our confidence.”

The eight-goal Huskies outburst directly linked to the number of shots the Gophers allowed. Minnesota allowed 31 shots on goal Friday night, well above their opponents’ season average of 21.2 shots per game.

The penalty kill proved more difficult than usual last weekend, too. Gophers’ opponents convert on average 12.5 percent of their power play opportunities, but the Huskies found the net on 33 percent of theirs.

While being 4-0-2 in conference play and riding a nation-best 10-game unbeaten streak proves Minnesota isn’t in a world of hurt, last weekend’s series showed it isn’t as unbeatable as it looked throughout the conference season.

But Johnson said not trying to do too much might help bring the team back to that tough-to-beat form.

“The simple play is sometimes the best play – this weekend we got caught up trying to do too much,” Johnson said. “I think working on the simple things will help us out a lot.”

Coach Don Lucia said that all things considered, last weekend could have been worse if the Gophers hadn’t gotten two crucial Western Collegiate Hockey Association points.

“It’s good to put points in the bank,” Lucia said. “We understand it’s not always going to go that well, so whenever you have a chance to put those points in the bank you’re grateful.”

But for the Gophers to get back on the right track, despite being ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national polls, they will have to get through defending national champion Wisconsin.

“We just want to come out and have a good weekend after we had an off one,” Johnson said. “For me especially, I’m going to have a little extra fire under me.”

Lucia said puck protection was poor last weekend and in order to compete in the conference, Minnesota will need to eliminate those errors.

“We play our best when we have the puck, we’re controlling it and we’re not turning it over,” Lucia said. “(Those turnovers) not only hurt you defensively but it breaks down the offense.”

Junior defenseman Derek Peltier said there will be bumps along the way and the learning process is a positive.

And with a young crew of players gaining experience in the middle of a season where expectations are as high as ever, Peltier said minor setbacks along the way will help the freshmen learn from adversity early on.

“This weekend we need to put last weekend behind us,” Peltier said. “We just need to play hard and take care of the puck.”