One of key components to any hockey national championship run - winning four single-elimination games against the best of the best - is getting outstanding goaltending. As great as it is to have an offensive arsenal that could take down the Spanish Armada, a goalie who can stand on his head and shut teams down can defeat even the most well-rounded of teams.
Whether it's Michigan's Shawn Hunwick, who shut out an impressive North Dakota team in last year's Frozen Four semifinals, Minnesota Duluth's Kenny Reiter backstopping the Bulldogs to a national title from a 3 seed or even the Gophers' opponent this weekend Boston University in 2009, the teams who advance to the national title game and win are the teams who get their best goaltending in March and April.
And it's a position that the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Kent Patterson want to see themselves.
Patterson, the 6'1" senior goaltender from Plymouth, has had a year with some extreme highs and lows. Entering a year for the first time as the Gophers' number-one goalie, he has started every game this season and been in net for all but 20 minutes. He responded by leading Minnesota to a 9-1 start that was capped off with a sweep over North Dakota at Mariucci Arena. Kent posted five shutouts in that stretch and made highlight-reel save after save.
Since then, he's come back to earth - finishing the season with a .910 save percentage- and seen his share of struggles. The last time the Gophers stepped on the Xcel Energy ice which they play on Saturday, Patterson and the Minnesota defense gave up six unanswered goals to that same North Dakota team and looked anything like a national contender.
"Even after that loss we practiced a day after and a lot of couldn't wait to get on the ice. We woke up that morning and put it behind us," said Patterson
Minnesota was understandably down following it and had a team meeting afterwards. It remains to be seen whether it helps or not but the Gophers have responded well following rough stretches. They are 7-2 after being swept by Denver and Minnesota is 16-3-1 this season on Saturday nights.
That has led to Patterson and six other seniors getting their first chance to go to the Frozen Four after missing the tournament the past three seasons.
"It's awesome, especially for our senior class," said Minnesota captain Taylor Matson when asked about finally making the tournament. "We've worked so hard the past four years and we've had this as a goal of ours since we came to Minnesota. It feels great to be here."
They will have to face a Boston University team that knows a thing or two about winning in the NCAA Tournament. Two players, goalie Kieren Millan and Chris Connolly (brother of Minnesota Duluth forward Jack Connolly), played key roles in the Terriers' 2009 national championship. Millan led the Terriers as a freshman with an amazing 29-2-3 record and 1.94 goals against average.
He hasn't been able to repeat his success - BU is making their first tournament appearance since then - which is not the only thing the Edmonton native has in common with Kent Patterson. Both goalies were drafted by the Colorado Avalanche, Patterson in the 4th round in 2007 and Millan in the 5th round of 2009, and share a common bond that could see them fight for the same job at the next level
"It's a unique situation," Millan said when asked about Patterson. We were fortunate enough to meet this summer at the Colorado Avalanche's Prospect Camp. He is a great person. It adds a little bit to the game, but at the same time, I am focused on how our team plays. It is not that much of a distraction."
At the very least, Minnesota fans hope to see Patterson share another similarity with Millan as a national title-winning goalie before he leaves. Whether or not that happens depends on which Gopher team shows up. There have been moments this year (and even in parts of games) where the team has looked like a true national championship contender.
Other times have seen lazy play, erratic defense and being out-muscled by the opposition but the thread that ties Minnesota's season together is their senior goalie. They've shown time and time again that the Gophers can put the past behind them, however, if they are going to go on a run this season for a national title it all boils down to getting outstanding goaltending.
"It should be a good matchup," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "We have to play well in front of Kent. We have to take care of the puck. You have to do the little things if you are going to be successful."