In my opinion, one of the coolest features of the SB Nation platform that we have here with Bucky's 5th Quarter, is all the websites that are hosted under one umbrella. Every day more and more SB Nation sites are starting to pop up. More specifically, area specific sites are starting to gain traction.
This week we were able to grab Nate Wells (@gopherstate), who covers the Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team for SB Nation Minnesota for our weekly Friday interview to preview the upcoming series between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
We talked to Nate about the number one ranked Gophers hot start, Kent Patterson's play between the pipes, and the emergence of a freshman class led by Kyle Rau.
B5Q: The Gophers have started off much hotter than anyone had projected, what has been the biggest key for their early season success?
Wells: There are many reasons for the Gophers starting 9-1 but biggest key to their early success has been Kent Patterson. While the offense has been one of the best in the nation and the defense has stepped up, Patterson has been the rock of this team. He has tied the Minnesota season record with five shutouts and it only took the junior nine games. Every game has seen Patterson one or two remarkable saves at opportune times to keep the Gophers out of trouble and he's only given up one "soft" goal.
I don't want to say that this has come out of nowhere because Patterson was outstanding in the second half of last season. That tends to get lost in how Minnesota's season ended. However, the stats don't lie and with a .942 save percentage, 1.60 goals per game and halfway to Ryan Miller's NCAA shutout record of ten (and it's the second week of November), Kent Patterson has been the MVP of the Gophers.
B5Q: As always, Minnesota brought in a great freshman class. Outside of Kyle Rau (who has been fantastic), how has the rest of the freshman class looked so far?
Wells: It's funny you say that because this was the first freshman class in a decade which didn't have a first round draft pick (or future first rounder if you include players who accelerated like Jordan Schroeder or that Kessel guy). However, it's for that reason why a few of the freshmen have played beyond their years.
Gophers coach Don Lucia brought in seven freshmen this season and with 27 players, quite a few have been struggling to get playing time. A guy like Christian Isackson, who was heralded as an all-state high school player, drafted by Buffalo and spent a season in the USHL, has only gotten to play two games this season. I also think it helps that Kyle Rau is the only freshman who came to Dinkytown without spending an entire season in the USHL or USNTDP. Minnesota has had issues relying on players accelerating from HS and the number of 19 and 20 year-old freshman is great to see as they have had another year to mature against better competition.
Besides Rau, who has been the best freshman in the country with 8 goals and 15 points, a few freshmen have made their mark on the Gophers. Sam Warning, a 5'9" Missouri native who went undrafted, has found his home on a second scoring line with Erik Haula and Jake Hansen. He's a smaller player but not afraid to use his speed, get dirty and get in front of the crease.
Another freshman to look out for is forward Seth Ambroz, who at one time was projected to be a top-five pick before falling to the fifth round. He's a big body at 6'3", 210 lbs and not afraid to be physical. Ambroz is still learning and has had issues with being consistent - he hasn't scored since the first series and has taken a few penalties while getting booted from Friday's North Dakota game - but he's played the entire year like there was a chip on his shoulder. That's helped as having these guys come in with a chip on their shoulder makes all the difference.
B5Q: I thought the biggest key for Minnesota this season if they were to have success was going to be improved play from their defensemen. Have you seen some of those blue-liners take the next step?
Wells: That would be pretty fair to say. Minnesota lost their top three defensemen from last season to graduation or early departure and only have one upperclassmen (Seth Helgeson) on the blue line. How they would fare was the big question mark coming into the season and one of the keys to returning to the NCAA Tournament. Sophomores (and 2010 2nd round picks) Mark Alt and Justin Holl have grown tremendously this season and they are playing with the poise of seniors with their gap control. Alt in particular has been great with both his size and being able to help carry his partner, freshman Ben Marshall, on occasion when the freshman gets over-zealous or beaten.
However the biggest growth this year is easily sophomore Nate Schmidt. He's a smaller offensive defenseman at 5'11" and has gone from having troubles making the lineup last season (coach Lucia even tried Schmidt at forward a couple times) to second in the nation in scoring among defensemen. He (along with Marshall) has given the Gophers power play the movement and spark it has been missing the last few years.
It's hard to give credit to any one person. Between Schmidt, Alt, the much improved penalty kill (which went from being one of the worst in the country last year to an 88% kill rate this season) and having a good goalie in the net there are plenty of candidates but I have to think Mike Guentzel returning as an assistant coach has been a big reason behind the success of Minnesota's blue line. I also think it has helped that the offense has been explosive enough where the young defensemen can sit back and worry about playing defense without having to create offense.
B5Q: If you could write one word on the Minnesota chalk board that all the players would see before they step on the ice this weekend, what would it be, and why would you write that?
Wells: Good question. My word would be "composure."
The reason for choosing composure is that I would all the Minnesota players to be collected and have the composure to go out and play a full sixty minute game without taking bad penalties. This is a rivalry series and it's easy to let emotions get the best of players; however in that physical and amped-up play, I would want some calmness
B5Q: Time to put you on the spot, what is your prediction for this weekend? Have some balls Nate!
Wells: My gut says Minnesota takes three points. The Kohl Center is a tough place to play - I've been there a few times - and while the Gophers have been killers on the road sweeping UMD and Alaska-Anchorage, the Badgers' style of play seems to suit lower scoring games. Because of that, I can see Wisconsin and Minnesota tying one night and the Gophers' offense taking off on another. They've played better on Fridays so with putting my balls on the line lets say 5-1 Minnesota in game 1 and a 2-2 tie in game 2.
We can't thank Nate enough for taking the time to break down this huge series with us. Make sure you follow Nate on twitter and check him out at SB Nation Minnesota.