As the Minnesota men’s hockey team heads into the holiday break, they carry with them a share of the No. 1 ranking in the nation. The Golden Gophers are currently sharing the top spot with rival St. Cloud State, but a Huskies loss on Friday night to No. 10 Union, should mean Minnesota will retake their place as the outright No. 1 team in the country sooner rather than later.
Besides rankings and bragging rights, here are five things that we know about the Gophers to this point in the season.
1. Teams generally live and die with their special teams play. Right now, Minnesota is in stable condition in the college hockey intensive care unit. Ranking roughly in the bottom third in both power play and penalty kill percentage, the Gophers need to find some spark with and without the man advantage. Losing some heavy hitters on offense to early departures last year hurt the program on the power play especially, but head coach Don Lucia needs to find someone he can lean on to quarterback things with the extra attacker. Sophomore Mike Reilly leads the team in power play scoring, but the fact that talented freshman forward Hudson Fasching has no power play points is concerning.
2. Speaking of freshmen, how impressive has this group of first year players been? Very impressive. Besides Fasching’s power play scoring woes, forwards Taylor Cammarata and Justin Kloos, along with defensemen Jake Bischoff and Michael Brodzinski have all opened eyes. The rookies have helped carry Minnesota to the top ranking in the country and will need to continue their impressive play for the Gophers to be successful. This is even with the loss of defenseman Tommy Vannelli before the season to the Western Hockey League. Fasching and sophomore defender Brady Skjei are now off to join coach Lucia in Malmo, Sweden for the World Junior Championships. We’ll see them back after the Mariucci Classic — hopefully with gold medals for Team U.S.A.
3. Sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox was not a flash in the pan last season. Wilcox continues to impress and has far better numbers than Travis Weber had when Lucia rode the then sophomore goaltender to the 2003 National Championship over New Hampshire. The South St. Paul native needs some help in front of him to be a championship caliber netminder, but he isn’t that far off. It would be nice for the Minnesota coaching staff to give Wilcox a break in the nets every now and then..
4. The Big Ten Hockey Conference is what we thought it would be. Minnesota sits atop the Big Ten standings early in the conference season, but the Gophers and the Michigan Wolverines are really the only two worthwhile teams out of the six. Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin could give Minnesota a challenge in a single game, but not in a lengthy playoff series. Bottom feeders Penn State are just too inexperienced to compete yet at the Division-I level. It should be a battle between the Maize and Blue and the Maroon and Gold come seasons end.
5. Minnesota is the best five-on-five team in the country and they want to keep it that way. The Gophers don’t get penalized often but they also don’t see a lot of power play chances. This leaves them skating with a lot more even strength time on their hands. Minnesota leads the nation in shots on goal per game and they’re getting all those shots off because they’re second in the nation in face-off winning percentage. Centermen Travis Boyd, Kyle Rau, and Kloos are winning draws and setting up shots for the rest of the team. This translates to winning hockey at any level. Proof enough, the Maroon and Gold lead the nation in plus/minus at plus-30 on the year.