Battered and bruised: Gophers defense embraces new identity

Minnesota leads the WCHA in scoring defense with 2.09 goals allowed per game.

Dane Mizutani

Minnesota entered the season as an all-around young team, especially with a defensive unit comprised of one junior, five sophomores and two freshmen.

Six months later, that same youthful group has developed into one of the Gophers’ main strengths as they push toward the playoffs.

“We needed to … silence the critics that thought our defensive core wasn’t going to be as strong as it has in the past,” junior defenseman Seth Helgeson said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far.”

The Gophers boast the best scoring defense in the WCHA, allowing 2.09 goals per game. 

Although a bulk of this success can be attributed to Kent Patterson’s dominance in the crease, the defensemen have acquired an identity of their own.

“We’re most dialed in and we’re best as a team when we’re blocking shots,” sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “I really think that starts with our defensemen.”

Minnesota has blocked 431 shots this season — a number that seemed nearly unattainable after its series with Minnesota-Duluth in October.

The Gophers surrendered 100 shots in two games that weekend, but they have placed more stress on blocking shots since then.

“I don’t think it was something that was as big of an emphasis early in the year,” associate head coach Mike Guentzel said. “Now they see how it goes with the correlation of winning games and being focused.”

Since the UMD series, Minnesota has shown steady improvement on defense. It currently allows 25.2 shots per game — more than seven shots fewer than it allowed on average last season.

Guentzel said the team has taken on a new defensive mentality this season, which is his first as Minnesota’s associate head coach since 2008.

“I tell them that I’d like you to be agile, mobile and somewhat hostile,” Guentzel said. “Our team has bought in, and I think collectively as a group our team has really taken on the identity of being a hard-to-play-against team that shot blocks,” Guentzel said.  

Schmidt has blocked a team-leading 41 shots this season to complement his team-leading 30 assists.   

Mark Alt and Ben Marshall are second on the team in blocked shots with 38 apiece.

“It’s one of those things where you know it’s going to hurt, but you almost have to just bite your tongue and just give it your body,” Schmidt said. “Usually [the puck] finds a way to hit somewhere where you have the least amount of protection.”

Despite Schmidt’s offensive prowess, Helgeson has grown into the leader on the blue line. His presence on defense has had a big impact on freshman defenseman Blake Thompson.

“He’s the oldest guy on the defensive core, and he’s got the most experience,” Thompson said. “We kind of play the same role. … I make sure I’m watching him and watching how he’s playing because what he’s doing is the reason he’s playing.”

Helgeson said he recognized his role on the team this season and took it upon himself to lead by example. 

“I needed to be a voice back there and just be a steady defenseman and be the guy back there that’s willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Helgeson said. “I think everyone has taken that step and will do anything to win.”

John Carlson helped improve the Gophers men’s golf program last year as an associate head coach. This year he’s at the helm and has bigger plans.

Last season, the Gophers collected three top-five finishes and 10 top-10 finishes while sending two golfers to the NCAA regional.

“I think in the level of coaching and the level of teaching the bar has been raised at the U,” Carlson said. “The players have matured and we keep getting in-and-out players that can compete right away as freshmen.”

Prior to joining the Gophers’ coaching staff last season, Carlson spent three years at the Wayzata Country Club in Wayzata, Minn., after a stint playing professionally.

“I decided that coming back to Wayzata Country Club as a teaching professional was the right thing for me and my family at the time,” Carlson said.

His credibility as a Division I golf coach comes from that five-year stint playing professionally on the Nationwide and National Golf Association tours. Carlson owns 14 career professional titles.

Carlson played college golf across the border at the University of Wisconsin. He was a four-year letter-winner for the Badgers, won collegiate events and was named Academic All-Big Ten as a senior in 2001. Academics were something that Carlson said he wanted to stress to the team when he was promoted to head coach.

“I wanted to change the discipline both on the golf course and off the golf course,” Carlson said. “We had a great academic first semester — it was the best in a decade for men’s golf. That was a big change for me.”

The Bagley, Minn., native said he got into golf to spend more time with one of his close friends.

“He lived right down the road, and if I wanted to hang out with him in the summer I had to go to the golf course,” Carlson said. “I ended up liking it — it was a sport that immediately I was at least competent at. And I just kind of worked at it at a nine-hole golf course all day, every day until I was a college freshman.”

Carlson said the jump from “competent” to playing at a high level came while he attended Wisconsin — a feat he credits to the Badgers’ coaching staff.

“I didn’t really have any role models … in golf. My parents don’t play a whole lot,” Carlson said. “I was a good player here in the state. I ended up being an All-American.”

Coaching runs in the Carlson family. Carlson’s dad coaches girls’ track and field at Bagley High School, which has won two of the last three Class A state championships.

“When I was at Wisconsin, I kind of thought [the coaches] had the coolest job in the whole world,” Carlson said. “And because of that I always thought, ‘You know what, maybe I would be a good coach.’”

Carlson said he made his decision to coach after receiving praise from the director of golf at the University of Southern California.

“He said [I] would be a good golf coach,” Carlson said. “I asked him why and he said, ‘Because you’re patient, you’re disciplined and you know how to teach the game.’

“From there I just decided that this is a good career path.”

Once he chose that path, he made an immediate impression on the Gophers.

“My first impression was that I really liked him,” junior Erik Van Rooyen said. “He’s very organized, he’s very positive with the team and he knows where he’s going with the team.

“We have an ultimate goal,” Van Rooyen added. “And every day we have goals on how to reach that goal.”

Van Rooyen’s teammate Tim Peterzen said he was impressed by Carlson’s experience as a player.

“We can relate to what he’s talking about because he was a player — a really good player — at all levels,” Peterzen said. “So when he would tell us stuff, we could believe him because he’s gone through it all.”

Peterzen said that Carlson still has the “mindset of a player,” and that it really helps his game to walk through the course with his coach.

Carlson said the team’s goal for 2012 is to finish in the nation’s top-50, earn an NCAA regional bid and “hopefully play well at regionals and get a finals bid.”

“This year’s team we have six juniors on the team along with a redshirt sophomore,” Carlson said. “I feel like coming off a second-place finish at the Big Ten Match Play certainly was a step in the right direction, but we have a lot of work to do because the tournaments that we play at the end of this year are all against strong competition.”