Without Kangas, in Patterson Gophers trust

Alex Kangas’ season-ending injury thrust Kent Patterson into Minnesota’s full-time starting goalie role, and he’s relishing the opportunity.

John Hageman

Before MinnesotaâÄôs opening game at North Dakota two weeks ago, a bright pink sign reading âÄú[Alex] Kangas is ridiculous,âÄù stood out in the crowd at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Apparently that particular Sioux fan wasnâÄôt aware that the senior goaltender was 300 miles away in Minneapolis, recovering from season-ending surgery on a torn labrum that effectively ended his career at Minnesota.

So imagine his surprise when Kent Patterson, who played in just 15 games before this season, took the net for the Gophers, and his subsequent dismay when Patterson stopped 37 shots on the way to a 3-2 victory over the No. 2 Sioux.

What may be even more surprising? HeâÄôs quieted a No. 2 before.

In mid-December against in-state rival and then-No.2 Minnesota-Duluth, Patterson had 37 saves in a 3-2 victory, then 41 two nights later to preserve a 2-2 tie. His consistent play has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches alike.

âÄúHeâÄôs already proven that he can be a starting goalie for us,âÄù Nico Sacchetti said after that Jan. 14 victory in North Dakota. âÄúTonight was just another night he was in net.âÄù

It was and it wasnâÄôt. If playing goalie is like walking a tightrope, PattersonâÄôs safety net has essentially been yanked from under him. Backup duties now fall to junior Jake Kremer, who has never made a regular season appearance for the Gophers, and Alex Fons, who left the North American Hockey League and joined the Gophers just last week.

But even with KangasâÄô season-ending injury and head coach Don LuciaâÄôs declaration that Patterson will start every game if he is physically able, Patterson isnâÄôt feeling the pressure.

âÄúI donâÄôt think thereâÄôs ever been that much pressure from the coaches,âÄù Patterson said. âÄúTheyâÄôre just telling me, âÄòGo out there, have some fun.âÄôâÄù

He seems to be. PattersonâÄôs save percentage against conference opponents (.926) is second in the WCHA, and his 7-2-2 conference record is good enough for third.

Plus, Lucia never expected the go-to role to bother Patterson.

âÄúI donâÄôt know any goalie that doesnâÄôt want to play every night,âÄù Lucia said.

Although Patterson is relishing the opportunity to play every night, he can sense KangasâÄô disappointment. The two live together with Kremer, and Patterson has been helping Kangas around the house.

It was an abrupt end to KangasâÄô sometimes-brilliant career, one that included a record-setting freshman year. Now itâÄôs up to Patterson to carry the torch.

âÄúLooking at [KangasâÄô] career, itâÄôs something you want to replicate,âÄù Patterson said.

Patterson may have the chance to make a name for himself among the conferenceâÄôs elite thanks to his mental toughness, a quality a number of his teammates bring up when talking about him.

âÄúHeâÄôs always had it,âÄù defenseman Kevin Wehrs, who played with Patterson for two years in Cedar Rapids in the United States Hockey League. âÄúHeâÄôs got an opportunity to show it this year, and heâÄôs running with it.âÄù

Wehrs admitted that he and Patterson, along with fellow former Cedar Rapids teammate Jacob Cepis âÄúprobably give each other [more] grief than anyone on the team.âÄù

So did Wehrs give Patterson any grief when Patterson didnâÄôt join in a benches-clearing brawl incited by a vicious hit that sent WehrsâÄô head into the North Dakota boards?

âÄúNo,âÄù Wehrs said with a laugh. Then he turned serious: âÄúWe need him.âÄù