It's safe to say things have gone awry with the Gophers hockey team.
After starting the season, 9-1-0 with a sweep over North Dakota, Minnesota has been 6-6-1 and lost their last two games at Mariucci Arena. Although the team remains in a good position - the Gophers are ranked fifth in the country and tied for the WCHA lead with Minnesota Duluth - they haven't had the same mystique the team did earlier in the year.
Senior goalie Kent Patterson has six shutouts this season but his last one was November 19th; a stretch of nine games. First-year payers like Seth Ambroz and Sam Warning have hit the "freshman wall" and are have been worn down by the rigors of WCHA play. Even Nick Bjugstad, despite being tied for second in the country with 17 goals, has only scored two in his last six games.
The team reached a point where after Saturday's 4-3 loss to Notre Dame (which was not as close as the score indicates) captain Taylor Matson repeatedly pointed out that the Maroon and Gold need to return "to playing Gopher hockey" over their last 14 regular season games. It's a vague statement, but one that rings true. Minnesota has gotten away from what worked earlier in the season as they haven't had the same first period tenacity, puck movement and players have taken numerous momentum-killing penalties.
The biggest problem, however, has been the disappearance of the second line on the scoresheet.
When the season began, the line of Warning, Erik Haula and Jake Hansen was a great complement to the Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish top line. Hansen had points in his first six games, Warning had a three point game against Sacred Heart and Haula was one of, if not the best, Gopher forwards. The Minnesota Wild draft pick had four 3 point games in his first seven and as Duluth fans know he was just as dangerous in the first minute as the sixtieth.
But lately the second line has been less complementary and more non-existent. Over the last ten games the three players have scored two even-strength goals together, fewer than defenseman Mark Alt, and have not clicked the same way they did earlier in the season.Sam Warning was scratched a couple games during that stretch and when Jake Hansen and Erik Haula have had success, it's been on the power play.
Instead of tic-tac-toe passing and cycling the puck, the three are forcing passes and not creating the same offense as teams begin to clamp down on the Gophers and keep 3 or 4 players back. There's just not the same hustle. For a player who has been instructed to shoot the puck more, Haula has not been living by that. While he had eight shots in a 5-1 win against Niagara, he was only able to get five on net in the last two losses. In fact, the entire Warning-Haula-Hansen line had less than eight shots combined in both games.
Minnesota cannot rely on one line and hope for the occasional fourth line goal. They've gotten secondary scoring lately from bottom-six players - Nate Condon and Matson scored both goals in the Gophers' 3-2 loss to Northeastern - and it might be time to move one of them to the second line.
Having a player like Condon, who has twice the goals of Warning along with good vision and hustles, playing top-six minutes breathes new life into a team that needs it. His pass to Zach Budish on Budish's goal was one of best looks Minnesota had against Notre Dame and Condon has four points (1 goal - 3 assists) in his last two games. Moving him into Warning's spot and another energy guy like Tom Serratore into Condon's old spot on the third line should fill the void and create offense.
The Gophers have talent on their roster. No one will deny that but as previous teams have learned, all the talent in the world means nothing if it doesn't show up and work together. If Minnesota is going to avoid a second half collapse and continue being one of the elite college hockey teams, having a second scoring line actually scoring is needed for the team to once again play "Gopher hockey" before it is too late.
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