Don Lucia's Gophers are 14-5-1 overall and 11-3-0 in the WCHA.
The Gophers are 14-5-1 overall and 11-3-0 in the WCHA at the winter break. They are tied for first in the league and ranked No. 2 in the nation. We recently talked with coach Don Lucia about this year's team, exceeding expectations and what player has turned his head this year. We asked him a bunch of other questions too.
GopherSports: At the end of Last season, you said you felt the team was close to returning to form despite the disappointing end to the year. Is this year's team where you thought it would be or have they exceeded your expectations?
Don Lucia: I just felt when the season ended last year that we had a good second half run and had been playing pretty good hockey. Had we not faltered in that first round we would have been an NCAA tournament team and been on to the Final Five and done many of the things we had hoped to do during the course of the season. That weekend kind of left a stain for everybody.
I thought we had a chance to be a good team this year. I can't sit here and say that when the year began--looking at our schedule and knowing how young we were going to be in certain places--that we were going to be 11-3-0 in the WCHA. But that is a credit to our players and how hard they have worked and what a good team they have become.
GS: Coming into the season, a lot of people thought scoring would be a concern, but the Gophers have the second highest scoring offense in the nation. Were you as concerned as everyone else or did you think Minnesota would be able to score?
DL: It is always a concern and I think that is something that has held us back the last few years. We were not a high scoring team and could never get a timely goal or a separation goal when we needed it. I did not anticipate that we would be sitting here with Nick Bjugstad having 16 goals and Kyle Rau having 12 goals at the halfway point. Those two have gone a long way in helping alleviate some of our scoring concerns.
Then we did not have Zach Budish last year and I also think our freshmen have been complimentary pieces. Sophomores Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Nate Condon have really taken another step forward in how they have played this year. It has also helped to get Taylor Matson back, who we did not have at the end of last year for the third straight year. That has made a difference. Then on the backend, a guy like Nate Schmidt has really emerged and played really well this year.
GS: You mentioned Nate Schmidt, who has 20 assists in 20 games this year. What do you attribute his breakout season to considering he played sparingly last year?
DL: He has shown a swagger this year that we never saw last year. I think last year probably in many ways was a humbling experience for him. He learned the value of how hard you have to work on and off the ice. Off the ice, he is in a lot better shape and leaned himself out. When the year began, we told him that he was going to be one of our top five defensemen and that we needed him to play with confidence. We told him that he was going to have to play himself out of a job and not into a job. He settled in and knew he was going to be on one of the power plays. He has done a nice job in every situation he has been in so far.
Kyle Rau leads all freshmen nationally with 12 goals and 22 points.
DL: That line has been a dominant line on most nights and when they are on it makes it very difficult to beat us. We have good play throughout our other lineup as well, but you have to have that dominant line that can score for you every night and that is something that they can do. In the summer, looking at Kyle, Nick and Zach I thought that might be a good line. Kyle is a left-handed scoring winger with a right-handed center who started to become a dominant player they second half of last year. Budish adds size and is a good passer on the other side.
Kyle has a nose for the net. He scores most of his goals right around the blue paint. He is not a guy who is blowing pucks by goaltenders from 30 or 40 feet. A lot of times smaller guys want to play on the perimeter, but that is not his game. He is very competitive and is not afraid to make a big hit. He is scoring goals because he is going to the dirty areas.
GS: Is Rau more physical than you thought he would be?
DL: It is what I have seen, but I did not know if he would initiate as much contact as he has. He is not the biggest guy but he is ultra-competitive and I like the competitiveness he has shown on the ice, even with himself. When he makes a mistake, you can see him get mad at himself.
GS: Minnesota may be without Rau and Nick Bjugstad for the Mariucci Classic. That is 33 percent of your scoring. Who do you think is going to step up and score?
DL: We will have to do it by committee. We can move forward with a couple of our lines intact, but that would take away two-thirds of our top line and our two leading goal scorers, who also play on the power play and the penalty kill. We have to have some other guys play now and that is one of the reasons we played a whole different line last Saturday, because we know we will need those guys coming up. When we come back for those two games we know that other guys are going to get an opportunity. We do not know who yet, or how we are going to reconfigure our lines, but we need other guys to step forward. That may be guys who have not played a lot. A guy like Joey Miller, who played his first game of the year last Saturday found a way to score a goal.
Kent Patterson set a school record this year with six shutouts.
DL: He is a big reason we are where we are. He has been outstanding all season. He has not needed to make a boatload of saves each night, but he has had to make timely saves and big saves at critical moments of a game that has allowed us to maintain a tie or a lead. He has given us the opportunity to forge ahead and get that separation goal that we need.
GS: You do not have any senior defensemen and only one junior. How would you describe the play of your young blueline? The shots allowed this year to last year are way down.
DL: Our makeup is a little different. A year ago, on many nights we had three freshmen centers. Additionally, I think our defensemen are physically bigger this year than they were last year and I think they skate well. We have guys who can handle the puck pretty well and bring the puck out of our own end. I think we have done a better job of getting into people in our own ended and sealing and being able to get the puck and get out.
GS: The Gophers are 14-5-1 overall, but only 6-4-0 on Fridays. Is that a concern for you?
DL: No, part of what that is is that we played in three tough places. I think that factors into it. I think the Friday game against Michigan Tech was a different game. Four pucks went in off of different people and we made a mistake. We had chances to win that game and score some goals. I like the fact that on Saturday we have responded. If we lost the night before we have come back and played well. We have played hard and that shows that we are in good shape and that our compete level is good. But we also know that you cannot have a good weekend without winning on Friday.
GS: You mentioned Michigan Tech and last Saturday you showed a lot of emotion on the bench toward the end of the game. Many of your players said they appreciated the fact that you stood up for them and showed them that you have their backs.
DL: Some things happened in the course of the game-right or wrong-they happened, but I want our players to know that I do have their back and I am looking out for them. You do now want guys to get hurt at the end of the game and that is what I was most concerned with more than anything else. I think they understand that if you are a team, the players have to have the coaches back and the coaches have to have the players back.
Nate Schmidt is tied for first in the nation with 20 assists.
DL: Probably the most important player that has stepped up that we needed to would be Nate Schmidt. We lost three of our six defensemen from a year ago. Jake Parenteau and Nate Schmidt played a handful of games last year, and Schmidt even played a few games at wing. You look at a guy like Nick Bjugstad, who has 16 goals, but you could see some of that coming during the last third of last season. What Nate has done on our backline--because we are not real deep there and inexperienced--is what we have needed.
GS: What are your initial thoughts on the upcoming Mariucci Classic?
DL: I think it should be a really competitive field. Niagara has done a good job in their league. Northeastern and Princeton have come on strong. Obviously we are going to be shorthanded, but I am looking forward to watching some of our players who have not had the opportunity to play and to see how some of our players do in an expanded role and see what they can do. It is an important time for some of the guys in our lineup to show what they can do.
The other thing, I think we learned after this past weekend is that we need to continue to rotate some guys in and out. I think there needs to be some heat put on guys to make sure they play at a high level.
GS: What is the schedule for the team from now until the Mariucci Classic?
DL: We have ice for them every day for the next couple of weeks. School ends Wednesday. They have a study day Thursday and the guys are required to be here through Friday. After that they are free to go home. I want them to maintain their conditioning level. I am not concerned with how much they are on the ice during the break. We will weigh them before they leave and weigh them when they get back. We want them to do some cardio to maintain their conditioning level, especially next week.
It is good to get away. I don't even care if they skate next week. Getting away is not a bad thing, but three times next week they need to get on a bike or do something to get their heart rate up to make sure they are still in good shape.
GS: You are getting away for a bit as well, right?
DL: I am going to get a chance to watch some of our guys in Penticton. I will also get a chance to see Mario play, which will be nice. We also will have a house full of relatives, which will be nice. That is what the holidays are about. You get to this time of year and it is good for the players to get away a little but it is also good for the coaches. It will be nice for Mike (Guentzel) to get a chance to watch Gabe play for Colorado College this weekend when they play at Mankato. It is good for everybody to have an opportunity to catch their breath, so to speak.