Shot blocking boosts team’s defense

Improved defense has paid dividends for the Gophers in recent games.

Gophers forward Sam Warning skates against Wisconsin on Nov. 30, 2013, at Mariucci Arena.

Daily File Photo, Chelsea Gortmaker

Gophers forward Sam Warning skates against Wisconsin on Nov. 30, 2013, at Mariucci Arena.

Ben Gotz

The Gophers’ defensive renaissance started in the first period against Ohio State.

It was the second shift in the game, and sophomore forward Hudson Fasching took a puck to his body to block a shot.

Fasching’s small act of selflessness energized his entire team.

“At that moment, the whole bench got up and was excited,” senior forward Travis Boyd said after the team’s second game against the Buckeyes. “It was kind of like, ‘All right, we’re going to do the little things this weekend.’”

Starting with Ohio State, the Gophers defense has turned one of the key reasons the team struggled into one of its strengths.

After allowing just two goals per game against Ohio State, the Gophers held Michigan’s top-ranked offense to two goals in as many games.

“We struggled defensively for the longest time, and now as a team we’re doing those little things in the defensive zone to not allow teams to score,” senior forward Seth Ambroz said. “We were really dialed in defensively the whole weekend, I thought.”

One of Minnesota’s points of emphasis the last few weeks has been blocking more shots in front of junior goaltender Adam Wilcox.

Head coach Don Lucia said a player’s willingness to block a shot shows how invested he is in the team.

Ten different players sacrificed their bodies to block shots for the Gophers on Friday. They blocked 15 Michigan shots in the game.

On Saturday, the team blocked 13 more. The team’s forwards played defensive hockey as well, blocking 11 shots over the weekend.

It’s something the Gophers weren’t doing earlier in the season when they struggled, Ambroz said.

“The willingness to do those little things wasn’t quite there, whether it be blocking a shot … smart plays and stuff like that. [It] just wasn’t there,” Ambroz said. “That may have led to our struggles early on, and now those things are coming together and guys are having fun. They’re energetic on the bench, and we’re having success that way.”

Lucia said another factor in the team’s recent success has been continuity on the team’s back end.

After rotating players in and out of the lineup and losing junior defenseman Brady Skjei for six games because of injury, the Gophers have had the same defensive pairings for the last three weekends.

The Gophers have made Wilcox’s job in the net easier, and he responded with one of his best weekends of the season against Michigan.

“This past weekend he really looked assertive. He looked confident,” Lucia said. “It was like ‘Go ahead and shoot — you’re not going to score.’”

And despite Wilcox’s midseason slump, junior defenseman Mike Reilly said the team never lost faith in its netminder.

“He’s someone we always trust,” Reilly said. “He’s kind of been the backbone ever since he stepped on campus, making big saves and always kind of bailing guys out at times.”

And now with Wilcox back on track, the Gophers may have revived their season.

“Maybe some of the guys were a little scared or nervous about what actually could happen if we didn’t have a great weekend [last weekend],” Reilly said. “Now that we did, we’re starting to feel a little bit better about ourselves.”