For Gophers men’s hockey, road is where the heart is

Austin Cumblad

Road sweet road. ItâÄôs been nearly a fortnight since the Gophers were up in friendly Houghton scoring ten goals in two games and sweeping Michigan Tech; over a month since they cozied up in sunny Colorado Springs and blew out Colorado College on consecutive evenings. So thank goodness for this weekendâÄôs trip to Minnesota State. Finally, home-weary, 17th-ranked Minnesota âÄî 4-5-1 at Mariucci Arena âÄî can again build on its spotless road record. ItâÄôs been a perplexing pattern in the first two months of the 2010-11 season. The Gophers (8-5-1 overall, 5-4-1 WCHA) have struggled at home, especially in the WCHA and especially on Fridays, while thriving in distant arenas and hostile environments. Exactly why might be a combination of as many reasons as there are Minnesota skaters. âÄúWhen weâÄôre on the road everybodyâÄôs just ready to go, ready to step into that [road] atmosphere,âÄù freshman center Nate Condon said. âÄúWe just come out hard and itâÄôs working well.âÄù Of course, that might also explain why teams visiting Mariucci Arena such as Nebraska Omaha, St. Cloud, Wisconsin and Michigan State have combined to score the first 18 Friday night goals and won each time. Scoring first can make all the difference, head coach Don Lucia said. âÄúMore than anything else weâÄôve played good first periods and scored the first goal each night,âÄù he said, explaining his teamâÄôs road success. In stark contrast to their four Friday home games, the Gophers have yet to trail away from Mariucci. For that, much is owed to MinnesotaâÄôs 5.75 goals per game, but plenty of credit should also go the GophersâÄô defending. Rather than allowing a steady stream of early goals, in four games on the road Minnesota has conceded just three in the first period. Such stinginess leads to an obvious question: Who will be tasked with keeping the Mavericks out of the net? Lucia has favored the hot hand at goaltender, and since the second game of the St. Cloud State series on Oct. 24, thatâÄôs generally been junior Kent Patterson. That Patterson seized the regular starting role from senior Alex Kangas was rather surprising. As a freshman, Kangas set school records for save percentage (.930) and goals against average (1.98) and has remained MinnesotaâÄôs top option for most of his career. Kangas struggled early this season, however, and was essentially replaced by Patterson. He made only one appearance between Oct. 24 and Nov. 26. Then last weekend, Michigan State scored on Patterson three times in eight minutes, prompting KangasâÄô return to between the pipes. In relief, he allowed two goals over the remaining two and a half periods. Again starting two days later, KangasâÄô 35 saves were critical in MinnesotaâÄôs 3-1 upset of then-No. 8 Michigan. Lucia said Wednesday that Kangas and Patterson would likely each get a start in Mankato. He said Kangas âÄúdidnâÄôt like [sitting], nor would I expect him to like it, but I think he understood.âÄù Lucia added, âÄúJust like Kent had to sit behind him a lot the last couple years, there was that period of time where [Alex] had to sit behind Kent to get his game back.âÄù