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NCAA Hockey 101: Wait 'til next year, Minnesota Gophers

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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NCAA Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.

Something's gone wrong for Minnesota.

It wasn't so long about that the Gophers were among the best teams in the nation. From 2001 until 2007, they went a combined 200-77-27 (a win percentage of .702) and made the NCAA tournament every year, going to three Frozen Fours and winning two national titles. And they did it out of the incredibly tough WCHA, where it won three postseason titles and two regular-season titles.

And then things started falling apart. In 2007, for the first time in nine years, the Gophers won fewer than 20 games (though still squeaked into the NCAAs). Then last season yhey went 17-13-7 and missed the tournament for the first time since 2000. And now this year, they're 13-13-2 and swept only two WCHA opponents this year, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, which have 14 wins between them.

Worse, the Gophers have a bear of a schedule down the stretch.

They're at No. 2 Denver next weekend, host No. 10 Colorado College after that, visit No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth and wrap up the regular season against No. 3 Wisconsin. The Gophers' combined record against those teams so far this season: 1-5-0, outscored 19-12.

Translation: This will be the first season in which the Gophers have finished below .500 since Doug Woog got the boot in '99 and Don Lucia took over behind the bench.

So where has Lucia gone wrong?

I think the biggest problem is that these Gophers seem to quit very easily. From the six or seven games I've watched this season -- I'm not sure that I've seen them win more than two games -- they seem to start slowly and never recover; they're 1-7-1 this season when trailing through the first 20 minutes. That could be down to a number of things, like team leadership or confidence. Of course, it doesn't help that Lucia says this team doesn't have enough skill to win big games.

That's why it's more likely is that the problems are down to coaching. Gopher fans have been calling for Lucia's head, lustrous hair and all, for a while now; and in looking at the schedule, things are only going to get worse. The biggest knock on Lucia is that he plays favorites. Alex Kangas has been The Guy in net and he just hasn't been very good. A 2.65 GAA and .907 save percentage isn't going to put your team in the position to win a lot of games, but Lucia keeps rolling the kid out there 80 percent of the time. The power play is 34th in the country, and the same guys hop over the boards to score on just 17.9 percent of them.

The team scores a paltry 2.79 goals per game with an underachieving Jordan Schroeder and Tony Lucia (the coach's son is getting big minutes no one seems to think he deserves, by some grand coincidence), ahem, leading the attack that's tied for 36th in the country.

Lucia is the highest-paid coach in college hockey, and he seems to have made playing down expectations his primary job in the last two seasons or so. I think everyone knows that's not the way to run a successful program, but rather a way to keep your job a little bit longer.

Earlier this week, Minnesota AD Joel Maturi gave Lucia a vote of confidence in a brief interview with Inside College Hockey. Ken Hitchcock got one from Columbus GM Scott Howson earlier this year.

Just sayin'.

Pop quiz

In which I ask a blogger five questions about the team they follow. This week, I sent the questions to the Roger France, who runs Go... CC Tigers, about whether his boys can hang on in the race for a WCHA title and several of the Tigers' star players. You wouldn't believe the number of times I had to edit out the words "DU sucks." Or perhaps you would.

1. Once again it's a tight race at the top of the WCHA. Do you think the Tigers have the juice to win the regular-season title?

Sure they do, just as any of the other top five or six teams do. It sucks to be a fan of a team like, oh, let's say the Seawolves, just to pick a name ... but as a Tiger fan I know that -- with guys like captain Mike Testwuide, Bill Sweatt and Nate Prosser -- CC has great senior leadership who've been successful in the MacNaughton wars before. The Tigers have speed, balanced scoring, solid goaltending and an experienced D-corps, all of which can lead them on to great things when clicking on all cylinders.

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2. After a hot start, the Tigers went 5-8-2 in their last 15? Why do you think that happened?

Early in the season the Tigers were living off the power play, but in this more recent stretch they've been kinda dying on the power play, which has been a key factor. But as the season wears on, we all know what the typical WCHA ref will do: suck that whistle right down his throat, letting the teams play, with the power play becoming less of a factor. I also think that, based on goalie Joe Howe's early success, the Tiger D loosened up a bit, trying to be more active offensively, which sometimes left Howe more vulnerable. But, hey, the teams they lost to were no slouches, and CC had some good wins and hard-fought road ties in that stretch, too.

3. Speaking of goaltending, how do you like Howe and the boys at this point?

Much better than I did before the season began. I knew Howe had shown he was a reliable goalie before coming to CC; he just needs to keep those competitive fires burning, as all goalies do, suck the puck right off the defenders' sticks when he's in the right frame of mind. I was skeptical of Stremmel based on what I saw in CC's first exhibition, and if he didn't feel he was in the right situation at CC, then I'm glad he's gone and I wish him well. Behind Howe, Tyler O'Brien is a capable backup, and I'm anxious to see Mike Shibrowski get some action.

4. What have you thought of freshman Rylan Schwartz (22 points in 28 games) so far this season?

I thought it would take him more time to adjust to the pace and physical play of the WCHA, but he has been a very pleasant surprise. He has not just scored -- he's scored in key situations when CC needed him most. I've also been impressed with his hockey maturity: he's always aware of and communicating with his teammates, he's shown great patience at the right times, and he seems to see the overall game very well. Mentally he's in control of his game right now, and I think he's got great potential to grow and lead. If he continues to develop and do what he can do, success will follow him and the Tigers.

5. CC seems to have gotten most of the more difficult games out of the way already. What will make or break this team down the stretch?

The team is kind of a bipolar meld of eight seniors (nine, until Andreas Vlassopoulos saw his season end with knee surgery) and nine freshmen on the squad of 27. Early in the season they played very well as a cohesive unit, but lately, as they've run into some adversity, I've noticed a few times when it looked like a senior player was maybe trying too hard to take matters into his own hands. As long as the seniors show their individual leadership in the locker room but stick with that team concept on the ice, I think the Tigers will do just fine. And did I mention that DU sucks?

Extra Credit

• This weekend is of course the second college outdoor game of the season, with Michigan and Wisconsin playing at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. It will be cold. NCAA 101 buddies the Blog that Yost Built and 60 Minutes, No Alibis, No Regrets will probably have an uncomfortable amount of coverage. [BTYB, 60M]

• Well look at that, BU and BC won their first-round Beanpot games by a combined score of 8-1. What do you have to say on the matter, BU coach Jack Parker? "It's not a good thing for the Beanpot if BU and BC win it all the time. The tournament loses some of its luster if it is always the same teams. You know who wants BU and BC every year? BU and BC! That's it. People will get sick of it ... no, people are sick of it." Being right all the time sure is tough for me. [USCHO]

• Hockey East is letting fans vote on the best players of the last decade. Odds that the list will be nothing but UNH, BU and BC players: high. [HEOnline]

• Great post about where all the New England-bred talent has gone over the years. We get like three of these a season nowadays. [Warrior Rink Rat]

• There are some TV highlights this weekend. Friday has No. 14 BC vs. No. 15 UMass (NESN, 7:30 p.m.). Saturday has No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 19 Michigan at Camp Randall (B10Net, 8 p.m.) and No. 2 Denver vs. Air Force (FSN Rocky Mt., 8 p.m.). Monday has the BC/BU Beanpot final on NESN at 8 p.m. if you're into that sort of thing. [CHN]

Ryan Lambert writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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