Maroon & Cold

by Ben Gotz

Entering the 2014-2015 season fresh off an NCAA championship appearance and ranked No. 1 in the nation, expectations were high for the Minnesota men’s hockey program.

But rather than building on last year’s success, so far the Gophers (12-9-3) have taken a significant step back.

Instead of emerging as a Frozen Four contender again, the Gophers find themselves left out of the USCHO rankings for the first time since the end of the 2010-11 season.

That season also happens to be the last time the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament.

There are many reasons for the Gophers’ regression so far this season, and here are a few worth delving into:

Lack of five-on-five scoring

Even during a down season, the Gophers have the No. 10 offense in the nation.

But that ranking is largely due to the Gophers’ success on the power play this year. Nearly 30 percent of the Gophers’ goals come from their power play, the highest percentage in the Big Ten.

When the Gophers are unable to win the special teams battle, their five-on-five offense struggles to win on its own.

In the games the Gophers have failed to score a power-play goal, they are 1-6-1.

“For me, I think we need to be better five-on-five,” head coach Don Lucia said. “That’s been my issue for a long time.”

When the Gophers power play slowed in the first eight games after break, scoring five goals in 32 opportunities, the team’s offense struggled and it went 2-5-1.

Defensive lapses

While the Gophers have struggled to score at times, their opponents often have not — especially since the team returned from winter break.

In the 10 games since the Gophers took a month off, the team is allowing 3.5 goals per game.

Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox, a Second Team All-American last season, is ranked 46th in the nation in goals saved, a statistic for which his teammates share the blame.

“He’s one of the best goaltenders in the nation,” senior forward Seth Ambroz told reporters last weekend. “Maybe his numbers don’t show that, but that’s on us players. We haven’t been playing as well as we should be defensively.”

The Gophers defense has played solid for long stretches of games and is allowing fewer shots per game than last year. But this year the Gophers have been prone to defensive breakdowns, and opponents have capitalized.

“It seems like we can play [well], and then one mistake will cost us big time,” sophomore defenseman Jake Bischoff told reporters last weekend.

Depth not showing up

The Gophers returned 11 of their 12 top point scorers from last season, but some of those players haven’t returned the same.

Players like sophomore Hudson Fasching, senior Sam Warning and Ambroz are a ways behind their point totals from last year, though Ambroz has been on a hot streak recently.

Other players have gone through long cold streaks. After being one of the team leaders in assists for the first two months of the season, sophomore Taylor Cammarata has scored four points since the beginning of December.

“We’d like to have a few forwards generate a little bit more, but hopefully we will from here on out,” Lucia said. “We’ve got some seniors that have done it in the past, you know, kind of put the onus back on them that we’ve got to get it going so our team can take a step.”

Ambroz took the hint from his coach last weekend, scoring four goals in two games against Wisconsin, after notching only three in his first 22 games.

If the Gophers are going to climb back into the rankings, more players will need to step up and have weekends like that.