Myers: Easing in the young goalies will be an early key for Gophers
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Last season, the Gopher hockey team didn't clinch the WCHA title until March, but one could argue they won the crown in October. The forwards were solid, and the goalie had experience, but the reason most "experts" picked that edition of the Gophers for the middle of the conference pack was a young and suspect defensive corps.
Up stepped veteran goaltender Kent Patterson, who figured the best way to let the defense ease into things was to not allow any goals. None.
Patterson posted shutouts in three of the Gophers' first five games, and before the Thanksgiving turkey was on the serving plate, had set the school's single season record for shutouts.
"Kent's play early allowed the team to settle in," said Gophers coach Don Lucia on Wednesday at the school's annual preseason media day. He didn't need to add the salient fact that he, the defense, and an army of Gophers fans hungry for the team's first NCAA title in a decade knows very, very well: Kent doesn't work here anymore.
Patterson, after playing all but one period of last season, has signed with the Colorado Avalanche and is off toiling for a paycheck. He leaves behind two prime candidates to be the "next one" in the Gophers crease, junior Michael Shibrowski and freshman Adam Wilcox. Shibrowski's got experience, sort of. He was the goalie of record for 20 minutes last season. Wilcox has the hype, sort of. He comes to Dinkytown after two very successful seasons of junior hockey.
According to reports from inside the locker room, Shibrowski is the serious, hungry one, having gotten a tiny bite of the apple last season, eager for more. Wilcox is the more youthful, goofy fun-loving half of the pair. Apparently every team's got one of those.
And with an experienced, talented, solid - perhaps college hockey's most solid - defensive corps this time around, the early challenge will fall to the defenders to give the inexperienced goaltenders a chance to ease into things just a bit. For the defensemen, that means vision first.
"We do have some inexperience back there, but it's not going to change how we play," said Nate Schmidt, the vocal leader of the defense, who feels the goalies will learn the most from seeing, and stopping, the puck. "Let's let the goalie see the puck. Let's clear out traffic and let them get a feel for things early on."
Unlike a year ago, when lightly-regarded Sacred Heart was the opening opponent and left town with barely a whimper, future Big Ten hockey rival Michigan State will be the Gophers' first opponent this time around. That means the goalies, and the rest of the team, will get a truer test right from the start.
After winning the WCHA title and advancing to the Frozen Four then, these Gophers are picked to win the league crown and were tied with Boston College atop at least one national preseason poll. Those same Eagles brought last season's fun in the Florida sun to an abrupt end, whacking the Gophers 6-1 in the final game of Patterson's college career. Rather than lamenting, the players say that's motivation to get back to the Frozen Four, and win two more games, this time.
"We got a taste of it," Schmidt said. "Nice little nibble, but the whole piece is back there waiting for us."