Monday, October 24, 2011

Paul Rome: Gopher Hockey - A Return to Pride on Ice?

Lucia has a contract in hand, is a NCAA Tourney berth next?

I’m Paul Rome and once again, I’ve been asked by my STOB buddies to talk some hockey and this time around, I’ll give you the low down on Gopher hockey. Two of my greatest sports memories involve Gopher hockey. I was a senior at Mahtomedi High School watching the Gophers play Maine in the national title game. I was viewing the game with some buddies at a pal’s house. We were hanging on every drop of the puck and every shot on goal that night.

Down one with a minute to go, we all tackled each other with excitement when Matt Koalska tied the game and then proceeded to leap into the bench like Superman after scoring one of the biggest goals in Gopher hockey history. The hysteria continued about 20-30 minutes later when the only non-Minnesotan player on the team, Grant Potulny, scored the game winner in OT as the Gophers brought home their 1st national title in 23 years.

One year later, I was a freshman at SCSU watching the Gophs play New Hampshire for the title while sitting in my dorm room. It was a nail biter until Thomas Vanek, the greatest Gopher player I’ve ever seen, took over the game and scored two goals as the Gophers repeated as champs beating the Wildcats 5-2. I then proceeded to head to Mille Lacs Grand Casino and win $200 playing blackjack for the first time. That night turned me into a gambling addict, but what a great day! Everything went right that day.

Now that I relived the glory days, time to get back to business. As a Minnesota Gopher hockey fan, this is the one sport a Minnesota team should be like the New York Yankees or Duke Blue Devils (like that Ben?) and always dominate. For the past 3 years, that hasn’t been the case. The U has missed the past three NCAA tourneys and if not for Alex Kangas having an unbelievable freshman year in goal in 07-08, it would’ve been 4 years.

Probably more so than any other college hockey program, the Gophers have been hit hard by early defections to the NHL. Paul Martin, Alex Goligoski, Thomas Vanek, Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, Jordan Schroeder, and Blake Wheeler are the big names that have left the Gophers before their senior seasons. Don Lucia, who guided the Gophers to those back-2-back national titles, has been under a lot of heat for the U’s recent shortcomings.

This past week, Lucia signed a 3 year contract extension. Before this year started, I said to friends that Lucia needs to make the NCAA tourney this year or he might be let go. In all honesty, I’m glad they resigned Lucia. In 23 years of coaching, he has had 2 losing seasons. He restored the Gopher program when the program started to falter on Doug Woog. He has led the maroon and gold to two WCHA regular season champions and his teams have won the WCHA Final Five 3 times. Let’s not forgot those 2 national titles baby.

Many believe Joel Maturi gave Lucia an extension just to keep recruits on board. It seemed like the extension Tim Brewster got with the football team last season before getting canned. I agree with that theory a little bit, but in all honesty, if we let Lucia go, who would be the next Gopher coach? I can’t think of anyone that jumps out at me at the moment. We have one of the top coaches in the country right now. Why get rid of him?

Also, his teams have kept their noses clean under his guidance. Besides Fox 9’s “huge” investigation on underage Gopher puck players caught drinking (which is not a big deal at all since this happens at every D1 school), the team has stayed clear of legal issues, which is always a big plus in my book.

As for this year’s team, man, what a start! For this team, it all starts in goal. Senior Kent Patterson is probably the best goalie in the WCHA and one of the best in the nation. Goalie is arguably the most important position in sports and the Gophers have a potential All-American in that crucial spot.

Up front, the U is loaded with young, offensive talent. Wild draft pick Erik Haula is a sneaky good forward and big Nick Bjugstad (property of the Florida Panthers), wreaks havoc in front of the net and has a nice skill set to compliment his big frame. Bjugstad is probably the top gun on the team. No Goose or Maverick puns intended.  One guy who has really impressed me thus far is last year’s Mr. Hockey, Kyle Rau. He plays the game with great intensity and is an all around excellent player. He had a big weekend at UMD in leading the U to a sweep at the defending national champs.

As for the backend, bringing back Mike Guentzel to oversee the D was a good move. Coach G left 3 seasons ago, but replaced Lucia’s longtime friend John Hill, who really took a lot of criticism for the Gophers’ struggling D last year. So far, the 2011-2012 blueliners have done a better job, but have a lot of room for improvement.

Like the Wild, you can expect some growing pains with this group as Seth Helgeson is the only returning upperclassman D-man. Keep an eye on Detroit Red Wings draft pick Ben Marshall. Not only is he from my alma mater of Mahtomedi, he is skilled skater and I look forward to him making Kenny P’s job easier. He also leads the team at a plus-minus ratio of +11. Stay at home sophomore D-man Mark Alt is solid and I like the way he goes about his business on the ice.

After 6 games, the Gophers are a surprising 5-1. As a MN Sports fan, I’ll take that record. Coming from behind late in the 3rd to win against UMD in the WCHA opener on the road showed some character and I was even more impressed they came back the following night to get the win. Like any young team, you can expect some growing pains such as blowing a 3-1 lead at home against a Vermont team the Gophs should handle. Other than that hiccup, I’ve liked what I’ve seen.

I think the future is bright for the Gophers and 2011-12 will be a stepping stone back to where the program should be, which is on top of the college hockey landscape. I expect a top 4 finish in the WCHA and a berth in the NCAA tourney. I think making the Frozen Four is too much to ask for from this group, but making the Big Dance would make me happy.

Time will tell, but for now, I’m enjoying the ride and look forward to a big match up with rival #5 North Dakota at Mariucci Arena in two weeks. That weekend should be a good barometer for what we can expect the rest of the season. Until then, I am Paul Rome and I am out!

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