Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Team Devoid of Goal Scoring (but Relax, Gopher Fans!)

The Minnesota Gopher hockey team was shut out in consecutive games 3-0 by the University of Denver and their excellent goaltender Marc Cheverie. The junior netminder has recorded shutouts in his past three games and his scoreless streak now stands at over 203 minutes, trailing the school record set by Peter Mannino by just about five minutes.

The Gophers have been shut out three times in their first four games this season - twice by Cheverie and once by North Dakota's Brad Eidsness. Three goals in four games is not acceptable, nor is the 0-3-1 record to open the season.

However, Gopher Hockey Nation needs to get a grip.

If one uses the comments section of online newspapers or the message boards as barometers of public opinion, it is clear that the Gophers are highly unpopular. Bearing the brunt of the fans' frustration is head coach Don Lucia. Calls for his immediate dismissal are rampant in the viral universe. Many say the program has fallen far and is slipping into mediocrity. There is too much talent to play the way they have to date, the learned ones say. Most baseless are the attacks on the coach's son and co-captain Tony Lucia. The criticism for the younger Lucia has been stark, as if the coach pushed to have his son - one of only six seniors on the team - named captain. The message-boarders also state that Tony Lucia is not a good player, which is laughable, given that he is night-in, night-out, one of the Gophers' better players and certainly one for whom effort is never a concern.

We are only four games into a long season, and already Gopher Nation is calling this season a lost cause. The calls to have the faithful take a deep breath are few, but this post will do just that.

Take the following analysis of the Gophers' records through the season's first two months (October and November) in the Lucia era, followed by the team's final record in parentheticals:
  • 1999-00: 5-8-1 (20-19-2)
  • 2000-01: 9-3-2 (27-13-2)
  • 2001-02: 11-1-2 (32-8-4) - WON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
  • 2002-03: 7-3-4 (28-8-9) - WON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
  • 2003-04: 6-7-1 (27-14-3)
  • 2004-05: 10-3-0 (28-15-1)
  • 2005-06: 7-3-4 (27-9-5)
  • 2006-07: 12-1-2 (31-10-3)
  • 2007-08: 7-7-1 (19-17-9)
  • 2008-09: 7-2-5 (17-13-7)
  • 2009-10: 0-3-1 (??)

Note the two national titles there in the mix under Lucia. The Gophers hadn't won a title since 1979 until Lucia arrived on campus in 1999.

The point of the listing was that the strongest starts did not always equate to strong finishes. Last year's team looked great out of the gate but looked like they were skating in sand in January and February. It's important to get off to good starts, especially in league play, but as North Dakota can attest, it's how a team finishes which determines success.

The Gophers have a ton of talent on this year's squad and will get the goal-scoring ability back. To get shut out in three of four games is tough to swallow, but nobody has been scoring on Eidsness or Cheverie all season long. The Gophers have had their chances, firing 30 shots on Cheverie each night, but nothing found the back of the twine. No sensible hockey observer believes Jordan Schroeder will be scoreless all season long. Also among the scoreless are Cade Fairchild, Lucia, Aaron Ness, Mike Carman, Nick Leddy, and Zach Budish. Eventually, that will turn around.

The fan base needs to let off Lucia a bit. Four games have been played and there is plenty of action to go. Alaska-Anchorage comes to town this coming weekend. If Jon Olthuis or Bryce Christianson shut the Gophers out on consecutive games next weekend, maybe the fans will have something to their argument. For now, however, it's just pure emotion and animalistic instinct fueling the anti-Gopher and anti-Lucia fire.

Let's give the 2009-10 season a bit more time before we make determinations on whether this team is a bust or not.

Note: Check out my WCHA Examiner home page for a weekend recap to appear Monday morning.

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