Myers: Gophers hockey had a strong October, but is that so important?
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MINNEAPOLIS - The Gophers men's hockey team celebrated ascending to the no. 1 ranking in the country this weekend with an entertaining tie, and an impressive win. On Sunday afternoon the Gophers scored on four of their first seven shots, blasting past fifth-ranked Boston College 6-1, and with a 5-0-1 mark, will likely still be the nation's top-ranked team Nov. 8 when they next hit the ice, at Notre Dame.
Impressive, for sure, but is it a good thing to be unbeaten at the start of November? Recent history tells us that some of the more successful Gophers hockey teams have taken lumps early, then come on late in the season. On the visitors' bench, Gophers coach Don Lucia has seen a recent example of how it's done.
Two seasons ago the Gophers jumped out of the gate, starting 9-1-0, grabbing the conference lead and never letting go. Boston College, by contrast, was a pedestrian 14-10-1 in mid-January of 2012. Then the Eagles rattled off 19 consecutive wins. The 18th victory in that streak was a 6-1 dismantling of the Gophers in Tampa, in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals. The 19th win enabled BC to hoist a national championship banner.
After the Eagles forged a 3-3 tie on Friday in Minneapolis, their coach was asked if a deadlock on the road, in the home of the nation's top-ranked team, felt like a win.
"We're more interested now in establishing our club and trying to get better," said Jerry York, college hockey's all-time leader in coaching wins. "The win-loss record and the ties are kind of secondary to me right now. Can we get better? Can we get more cohesive as a club? And I thought all of those were really positive signs for us."
On one end of Mariucci Arena, they also hoisted a banner this weekend, commemorating the Gophers' 14th - and final - WCHA title, won last year when Minnesota shared the conference crown with St. Cloud State. Those dozen-plus maroon banners are an impressive sight, but in the minds of Gophers fans, they are a distant second to the six gold banners on the other side of the arena's ceiling, commemorating five NCAA titles, and a AAU national title won in 1940, before college hockey was officially organized as it is today.
In the most recent NCAA title season, 11 years ago, the Gophers headed into the holiday break with a good, but not great, 9-4-4 record, then won 19 of their final 28 games, including the final game of the season, for the national championship. By contrast, the 2006-07 team was 19-1-3 at one point and cruised to the conference's regular season title, then fell short of even getting to the Frozen Four.
So where do these Gophers fit after six games without a loss? And have they been tested?
"We were tested plenty tonight," Lucia said, looking forward to a weekend off, then a tough test with two games at Notre Dame. "It was a good October for us. We were able to play at home, and obviously the competition stepped up this weekend. It's a long season and we've got a couple nicks right now so the week off comes at a good time. Hopefully we get everybody ready to go before we head to South Bend."
Boston College plays within a bus ride of roughly a dozen other college hockey programs, meaning that plane trips and hotel stays like this one are rare for the Eagles. They won't get on a plane again until after Christmas, when they travel to Pittsburgh for a tournament. By then both teams will know a lot more about who they are, and whether BC's 2-2-1 record means anything next to Minnesota's current unbeaten mark. For Lucia, the significance of early wins comes in March when they pick the 16-team field for the NCAA tournament.
"You close a chapter in October, put those wins in the bank which will help you in the end, and hopefully we continue to learn and grow as a team," he said.
On the other bench, there was a different philosophy, where October wins are fine, but to York they don't mean as much.
"Once it gets to be February we'll start thinking about our record, but right now it's just a good indicator that we're getting better as a club," said York. Then he headed down the tunnel, for one of the Eagles' rare plane trips home.