Under the radar, defense propelling the Gophers

Should Minnesota maintain its current defensive numbers, it will rival the best teams the program has ever produced.

by Nate Gotlieb

Junior defensemen Anne Schleper didnâÄôt expect to play defense. At least not when she started in pee wee hockey.

In her first year, Schleper made the boys âÄúAâÄù team as a forward.  But her coach needed volunteers to play defense. 

âÄúAt the time, I had my mind set [as] a forward and everything,âÄù Schleper  said,  âÄúMy friend kind of nudged me and was like, âÄòraise your hand, raise your hand with meâÄô, so we both raised our hand, and ever since then, IâÄôve played âÄòD,âÄô and it actually has worked out.âÄù

Schleper has grown into a position in which grit usually trumps glory.  In a sport where offensive players do most of the goal scoring, defenders are left with generally thankless tasks. They must be physical and aggressive, preventing the opposing teamâÄôs forwards from getting clean looks at the net and forcing opponents into the corners of the ice. 

Defenders receive little recognition for excelling at the intricacies of the position, and then are highly scrutinized when things go wrong, head coach Brad Frost said.

âÄúThereâÄôs not a lot of offensive glory that goes with playing defense,âÄù Frost said. âÄúBut often times, people will look at the âÄòDâÄô if a puck goes in our net and think itâÄôs their fault, when really there were probably three or four other mistakes that the forwards made up until that point.âÄù

Schleper leads a Gophers defensive core that has helped the Gophers to 10 wins in their past 12 games.  Combined with the goaltending of all-American Noora Raty, the defense hasnâÄôt allowed more than two goals in a game over the stretch, while also taking an active role on the offensive end.

âÄúThey understand and grasp our âÄòDâÄô zone concept; theyâÄôre doing a good job of moving their feet and protecting the net front,âÄù Frost said.  âÄúBut I think itâÄôs individuals are playing better than they were last year, more confidently than they were last year.âÄù 

The Gophers have been especially adept at killing penalties during the streak: Opponents have converted only 4-of-57 power play opportunities, a mark attributed to a team identity, assistant coach Joel Johnson says.

âÄúItâÄôs just a commitment our team has, kind of an identity of, âÄòHey weâÄôre not going to give up an inch.âÄôâÄù Johnson, said.  âÄúWeâÄôre aggressive when we need to be aggressive, but weâÄôve combined that with some smart play as well, to try and be intelligent about when we pursue and pressure on the penalty kill.âÄù

Johnson was the defensive assistant coach when the Gophers won a national championship in 2004 and is back with the team for the first time since. He says the GophersâÄô success this season is built on the defensive play of all six players on the ice, much like it was during the championship season.

âÄúThe way that weâÄôre playing now is similar in the sense that itâÄôs been a team effort,âÄù he said.  âÄúI think thatâÄôs been the key over the last few weeks for us is that weâÄôre getting six players on the ice, goaltender included, that are really on the same page defensively.âÄù

Overall, the unit, along with goalie Noora Raty, is helping the Gophers to one of their best defensive seasons in program history. 

Minnesota is allowing a meager 1.57 goals per game, their lowest mark since the 2004-05 season.  The Gophers have held their opponents to 8.5 percent on the power play, which, if it stands, would be the lowest mark since the 1998-99 season.