Men’s hockey getting defensive of late

Adam Fink

This much is certain in Minnesota: offense wins games.

The Gopher men’s hockey team scored 16 combined goals in routs of Mercyhurst and Ferris State in the NCAA West Regional on March 28-29 at Mariucci Arena.

By controlling the puck and keeping it in the opponents’ zone, Minnesota dominated the shot chart 89-32. Overall, the Gophers (26-8-9) average 4.2 goals per game.

But as the rest of the cliché goes: defense wins championships.

While the offense has been garnering the headlines lately, the Gophers’ defense has gone largely unnoticed.

Heading into Thursday night’s game against Michigan in the semifinals of the Frozen Four, Minnesota’s defensive unit is now living up to its title: playing defense.

“The guys are playing with confidence and look comfortable,” coach Don Lucia said. “They have really come around to have a good year.”

Last year it was Jordan Leopold (48 points) playing the role of premier offensive defenseman. This year it is Keith Ballard (41) and Paul Martin (39).

But how far Minnesota advances in the Frozen Four will come down to the amount of turnovers the Gophers force, how many shots they allow and the quality of their checks.

If Minnesota’s defensive play during the team’s 14-1-2 record is any inclination, plan on staying the weekend in Buffalo.

Senior Matt DeMarchi has avoided taking major penalties while continuing to be the Gophers’ most physical presence. Alternate captain Martin has brought a calming demeanor to the defense.

Ballard has brought consistency and dramatically improved since the turn of the new year.

Sophomore Judd Stevens has improved his play and is solid defensively.

But it has been the emergence of freshman Chris Harrington and forward-turned-defensive player Joey Martin who have rounded out the Gophers last line before the goaltender.

The two players – who weren’t part of the Gophers defense last year – have played above what was originally expected from them.

“Joey’s a great skater,” Lucia said. “He has been mentally sharp. (Chris) doesn’t play like a rookie.”

It took some time to get to this point. Losing Hobey Baker winner Leopold initially left Minnesota with a large gap on the blueline.

Ballard started the year trying to do too much offensively.

“I put too much pressure on myself,” said Ballard, who was drafted 11th overall last year by the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. “Earlier in the year I was taking chances that I shouldn’t have done. Now I am playing smarter.”

Martin was thrown into the leadership role when captain Grant Potulny sustained a fractured ankle and ligament damage in the season opener.

As a sophomore, Martin established himself as a reliable player and showed leadership qualities that earned him the ‘A’ on his jersey this season.

“I knew there were more expectations on me,” the junior said. “I felt some pressure. I just wanted to lead by example.”

With their star players struggling, the defense as a whole stumbled: missing checks, making careless turnovers and suffering

mental lapses.

The low point came Feb. 7 at Colorado College when Lucia counted 40 turnovers – the majority from the defense – in a 6-2 defeat.

As the two players – who earned All-WCHA Second Team members this season – settled down midway through the year, so did the defense. However, the recent offensive efficiency has left the defense wondering how they compare.

And with the team leaving for Buffalo on Tuesday evening, the question arises: Is the defense ready for the Frozen Four?

The Wolverines average 3.9 goals per game, second-highest of teams in the Frozen Four.

“Our opponents aren’t getting a lot of chances right now,” Martin said. “That is a tribute to everyone. But then there is that concern that maybe your goalie hasn’t seen enough pucks.”

“We faced Colorado College (in the WCHA Final Five) and they really came at us (with 38 shots),” Ballard said about Minnesota’s 4-2 win Mar. 22. “It shows we are ready.”

Regardless, the defense has come a long way from the start of the season.

And with the offense unlikely to duplicate their West Regional performance against better talent, the defense will be a determining factor in where the team finishes the season.

“We’ve played a difficult schedule and the defense has proved time and again how good they are,” Lucia said. “I am feeling good about the unit.”

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and

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