Any coach worth his salt will be the first one to tell you that polls don’t matter.
“The only rankings that matter,” they’ll say, “are the ones at the end of the year.”
In that regard, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia isn’t much different, than anyone else.
“It’s not important to be at the top of the rankings at this stage,” Lucia said. “It’s important to be an improved team, and I think we are an improved team.”
Still, when the Golden Gophers were voted the No. 1 team this week in both the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll for the first time since November 2008, there had to be a sense that things were right with the world again for one of college hockey’s premier programs. No team is assured of a NCAA tournament berth a mere 13 games into the seasons, the Golden Gophers have sent a message with their 11-2 start that they’re back in form after three consecutive years of missing the tournament, tying the school’s longest drought in the modern era of tournament play.
Senior Kent Patterson, who grew up just outside the Twin Cities in Plymouth, Minn., certainly felt it.
“I think it’s a great indicator of our accomplishments thus far,” Patterson said. “Our program’s come a long way in the past couple of years, and to be in the No. 1 spot, it shows the hard work our team’s put in this summer, on and off the ice, and so far, in our practices this year. We’ve come hard to work every single week and every single day in practice.”
Clearly, that hard work has yielded results, but the Gophers have had to work for their success. Of the Gophers’ seven wins in WCHA play, all but one has been by two goals or less, including a 5-4 overtime victory against defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth on Oct. 14 at the Bulldogs’ Amsoil Arena and a 3-2 win this past Saturday against North Dakota at Mariucci Arena, closing out the Gophers’ first home sweep of the Fighting Sioux since 2002.
“We won some close games,” Lucia said, “tight games that have gone our way, and we’re sitting here with a good record. We knew that we were going to have seven out of our first nine league games on the road, so it was imperative that we try to hang in there through the early part of our schedule, and obviously, we’ve exceeded where I thought we’d be at this point.”
There are plenty of reasons for the Gophers’ early success, but Patterson may well be the biggest.
“It gives a team a lot of confidence,” Lucia said, “knowing that a goaltender has the ability to seal a game or make a game-changing save.”
In the past, Minnesota’s teams have been known for their high-flying offense, and this year’s Gophers are no exception, leading the nation in goals per game with nearly five scores per contest (4.80 g/g). However, through 13 games, Patterson and the Gophers have yielded just 16 tallies to opposing teams, ranking third in the nation in scoring defense at 1.6 goals per game.
For a team that was in the middle of the pack in scoring defense last year, that’s a big difference, and with Patterson ranking seventh in the nation in save percentage (.942) and fourth in goals-against average (1.6). He’s also the national leader in shutouts with five, including a 24-save effort in the first game of the North Dakota series, a 2-0 Gopher win.
“It was not only exciting for us, but it was exciting for the fans,” Patterson said, “to get fans excited again about Gopher hockey. Just being able to get those wins — especially [against North Dakota,] where we tied it up with six minutes left, and we got the game-winner by Kyle Rau with 46 seconds left. It’s a confidence booster for our team.”
The WCHA is one of the strongest hockey conferences, what are Patterson’s expectations for the rest of the season?
“It’s definitely going to be fun,” Patterson said. “We have a competitive bunch of guys here. We thrive in situations like this. These rivalry games are why you play the game. When I step on the ice and those chants are going, especially on the road, I like to tune it out, get in my own little zone, and focus on what I need to do.”
Of course, facing rivals at every turn — Wisconsin, Duluth, North Dakota, and others — is part of being a hockey player at Minnesota. As a Minnesota native who has spent plenty of time with former Gopher goalies like 1988 Hobey Baker winner Robb Stauber and current volunteer assistant coach Justin Johnson, Patterson understands.
“I’ve worked with Robb Stauber since I was 13 years old,” Patterson said, “and I’ve known Justin Johnson for a long time, and they’re both great coaches. What the alumni have contributed back to the program has been great for the program itself, and they’re definitely great tools to use for us goaltenders, and the other players too.”
Stauber’s Gopher teams, of course, went to three NCAA tournaments, while Johnson was a backup on four tournament teams. At most, Patterson will get to play in one. However, with the way they’ve played so far this season, Patterson and the Gophers have shown that they have what it takes to get there, and they’re determined to make it happen.