Since early December, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team hasn’t necessarily been unbeaten. Then again, the Gophers haven’t been too far off, either.
Top-ranked Minnesota (21-6-5, 16-5-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) has racked up a 14-1-1 record, including its current eight-game unbeaten streak, since its sweep at North Dakota in early December.
Perhaps most impressive about this two-and-a-half month run is the fact that the Gophers haven’t been spurred on by one particular area over another.
“We’ve just kind of improved, steadily improved, every area of our game,” senior forward Andy Sertich said. “We’re giving up less goals, we’re scoring a little more, our power play is as good as ever. So, I think just a combination of everything is working out.”
Sertich is correct about the team giving up fewer goals. Minnesota has allowed an average of 2.25 goals per game over the hot streak, down from a 3.67 average over its first 16 games.
Much of the credit for this belongs to junior goalie Kellen Briggs.
While neither he nor coach Don Lucia would come out and say Briggs has assumed the job as No. 1 starter, Briggs certainly has played like a No. 1 goalie.
He has turned in a 13-0-1 record over this recent streak (freshman Jeff Frazee was in nets for the one loss, to North Dakota at home on Jan. 14) and a save percentage of .917.
Briggs was especially instrumental in a win over Colorado College Jan. 21 and both wins at Wisconsin, Jan. 27 and 28.
“Kellen’s really stepped forward and has been terrific the second half of the season,” Lucia said. “I think the second half now, he’s playing like he did the first half of last year when he was fresh.”
Briggs’ play appears to have put an end to the early season goalie rotation of Briggs and Frazee.
Briggs, who had been playing only on Fridays for the most part early on, said getting to play both nights has been crucial for him.
“You see a lot of stuff on video but it’s not the same as playing (the opponent),” Briggs said. “So, when you get to see their power play up close and personal during the game, you kind of see some things that they might try and do the next night.”
The defensemen in front of Briggs also have keyed the run. And a big reason for that, according to sophomore Derek Peltier, has been the groups’ ability to limit odd-man rushes and challenge opponents’ forwards to keep shots to the outside.
Continuity also has been important, Peltier said, as the team has kept the same three defensemen combinations throughout the streak.
“You can tell,” he said, “because everybody’s been moving the puck well together and just been doing a good job working off each other.”
While things have been going well for the defensemen, Peltier said the group still could be more physical with opponents down low and has to continue to work on keeping shots to the outside.
Still, the improved defense has led to improved offense. The Gophers have brought their scoring up, from 3.5 goals per game over the first 16 games to 4.56 during the streak.
A big reason for this is that the forwards have been able to do what opponents have not against Minnesota’s defense: get down low, especially to the front of the net for rebounds, screens and tips.
Junior forward Danny Irmen said the coaches have put an increased emphasis on this during the team’s recent tear.
“And that is how all the goals are scored, or 70 percent, are scored by rebounds,” Irmen said. “I’d say that’s been one of the big differences since the beginning of the year is that we’re really working hard to get to that loose puck.”
Scoring is up, but Lucia mentioned a few players ‘ Sertich, senior forward and team captain Gino Guyer and sophomore forward Mike Howe, all of whom have been in scoring slumps lately ‘ he’d still like to see pick it up a bit offensively.
“Those are three guys that we think can score that need to chip in here,” Lucia said. “You know, they don’t need to get a goal every game, but if they could get one goal a weekend, that would go a long ways.”
If those three players, among others, can get back on track offensively, the defense can continue to play strong and get better in a couple of areas and Briggs can maintain his current level, the recent 14-1-1 record could just be the start of something bigger.
But, according to Irmen, no matter what happens, it wasn’t the series in Grand Forks, N.D., that started things off ‘ it was the one that came before it.
“I still look back at that Wisconsin series (Dec. 2-3 at Mariucci Arena) when we got swept and that really changed a lot for us,” Irmen said. “It was really a gut check and it was a character check, too, to see where we were at.
“Because everyone was telling us how good we are before that and it might have gone to our heads a little bit and that really showed us that, you know what, we can be beaten. We gotta play better and practice better.”
Matson verbally commits
Taylor Matson, a junior forward for the Academy of Holy Angels, has verbally committed to play for Minnesota for the 2007-2008 season, Matson said Wednesday.
Matson said he and his parents had a meeting with coach Don Lucia before Saturday night’s game against Denver to inform Lucia of his decision.
“I always, I guess, grew up going to the Gophers’ games and I was like, ‘I just want to be one of those guys someday,’ ” Matson said in a telephone interview. “It was my dream to be a Gopher.”
Matson, originally from Mound, said he also was considering North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado College.
Matson, 5-feet, 10-inches, 175 pounds, is currently eighth among Metro leaders in scoring with 26 goals and 39 assists (65 points) in 25 games this season.
Matson will join Holy Angels teammate Jay Barriball on the 2007-2008 squad. Matson said the chance to play with his good friend Barriball definitely influenced his decision.