Three problem areas for U men’s hockey a quarter into the season

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

The Gophers can't avoid reminders of their past. They see it all the time on TV, when they watch NHL games featuring five key players from the team that reached last year's NCAA Frozen Four title game.

The departures of Brock Faber, Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson left major gaps in the Gophers' lineup. After eight games, this season's roster is still finding its footing.

Coach Bob Motzko is waiting for the team to play to its potential through a full weekend series, and he's looking for a lineup heavy with sophomores and freshmen to get increasingly comfortable in leading roles.

"We've got a lot of young players we're throwing out there, and look at [the players] we lost," Motzko said. "We're making progress in some areas. If we can stay steady, I like our group."

This weekend, the sixth-ranked Gophers travel to No. 8 Michigan for their first Big Ten road series of the season. As they move into the second quarter of their schedule — and kick off a stretch of 10 conference games — here are three areas they're working to clean up.

1. Pump up the scoring

The Gophers have the tools to be a high-scoring team, but they're underachieving in that area. Their 3.25 goals per game is tied for 21st in the national rankings; in their past five games, they have averaged only 2.6.

After losing three of last season's top four point producers to the NHL, the Gophers need their young talent to step up. This week's practices focused on making the offense more productive.

"That should be the strength of this group," Motzko said. "Of [64] teams in college hockey, probably 48 are working on defense. We're working on offense, so they should take that as something fun."

Forward Jimmy Snuggerud said an in-depth film session this week revealed one of the solutions: getting to the net more often.

"We had 50 shots Saturday [in a tie at UMD], and 35 came from no net-front presence," Snuggerud said. "We're creating opportunities right now. We've just got to get to the net. That's on us."

While the Gophers work to score more often, Motzko had high praise for the defense. Senior Mike Koster returned last weekend after missing the first six games because of injury, and Motzko noted improvements by senior Carl Fish and freshman Sam Rinzel.

"If our forwards could take strides like our D-corps has, we'd be in a good spot," he said.

2. Spark the power play

In their opening series against St. Thomas, the Gophers scored three power-play goals on six chances. They have gone 1-for-17 since then. The team's success rate of 17.4% ranks 36th in Division I, and they have managed an average of only 1.3 shots on goal on each of their 23 power play opportunities.

Motzko said players have been too stationary, and they're suffering from a lack of confidence. In last Friday's victory over Minnesota Duluth, the Gophers got some quality chances, but they sagged when shots were blocked or bad passes ended up on opponents' sticks.

"The minute [the puck was] cleared, you see the dauber go down," Motzko said. "You have ebbs and flows with your power play all season long, and it's awful when it starts early. We've got pretty good players. We just have to find the right mix."

3. Eliminate bad penalties

Motzko's biggest pet peeve is the unnecessary stick penalties the Gophers have been committing, which he blamed for two of the team's three losses. Last Friday, he benched Rhett Pitlick and Bryce Brodzinski for a few shifts after they were penalized for hooking and slashing.

Typically a disciplined team, the Gophers are averaging nearly nine penalty minutes per game. They can't afford such sloppiness against Michigan, whose power play leads the nation with 17 goals.

"Those have really hurt us," Motzko said. "That can be corrected. It's been addressed."

Snuggerud said players can avoid those penalties by using their speed to keep up with opposing players and by keeping sticks away from opponents' arms. "Refs are calling that a lot," he noted.