Myers: Kent Patterson's perfection a Gophers game-changer
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Minneapolis -- There was tempered excitement around Mariucci Arena this week, as preparations for a departure to Madison coincided with the arrival of the nation's top ranking. The Gophers 9-1 record, coupled with some losses by teams previously above them, had made Minnesota the no. 1 club in all of the major polls.
That honor, delivered long before Thanksgiving turkeys have been thawed, let alone cooked, means roughly nothing. Those opponents who have played the Gophers know they are a very good team. Those who have not yet are still wondering if Don Lucia's club is for real, or a fluke.
The one area where those questions have most prominently disappeared for the Gophers is between the pipes. Senior Kent Patterson entered the season with no collegiate shutouts to his credit, and heads into the Veterans' Day showdown with Wisconsin already owning a share of the school's single-season shutout record, having posted a zero on the other team's side of the scoreboard five times in his first nine starts. The quintet of blankings ties him with Robb Stauber, who was a Dinkytown freshman a quarter-century ago, and who, as a sophomore, became the first goalie to win the Hobey Baker Award, as the nation's top player.
Stauber came within an overtime goal of winning a NCAA title for the Gophers in 1989, and despite the fact that later both Adam Hauser and Travis Weber backstopped Minnesota to national titles - in 2002 and 2003, respectively - Stauber is still forever the measuring stick at a school known more for its recent run of NHL-caliber defensemen (Keith Ballard, Jordan Leopold, Erik Johnson, Paul Martin, etc.) than for world-class goalies.
That honor generally resided four hours to the southeast, in Madison, where for 30 years Wisconsin was the goalie factory around these parts. Under the tutelage of legendary goalie coach Bill Howard, the Badgers sent the likes of Marc Behrend, Curtis Joseph, Jim Carey, and Brian Elliott to the NHL, and had a dozen or so others win All-American and All-WCHA honors while learning and playing for Howard in his legendary system.
Then, a few years ago, not long after Elliott backstopped Wisconsin's most recent NCAA title in 2006, Badgers head coach Mike Eaves had a parting of the ways with Howard, and the run of goalie dominance in Madison looks to be at an end. A pair of freshman goalies have split time as Wisconsin has compiled a 4-5-1 record thus far, meaning a turning of the tables in this rivalry this weekend, as it's the Badgers, not the Gophers, scrambling to find a way past a dominant goaltender in the other net.
In the case of Patterson, that may be a bigger challenge than one would expect. Gophers goalie coach Justin Johnson said the secret to Patterson's success thus far is a powerful and creative game that allows him to cover lots of territory in a short time. But Johnson said that also added to the mix is the fact that Patterson can see the same shot five times and stop it five different ways, making it exceedingly difficult for opponents to scout him and predict what he will do versus live fire.
In addition to stopping the puck, what Patterson is doing something that might not be seen so clearly beyond the Minnesota locker room, giving the young defensive corps a boost in confidence and allow them to do more offensively.
"It allows us to jump in the play more, knowing that we have a player back there of his caliber," said sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt. "It's fun to have that ease. You can allow yourself to play more aggressive and get up into the play, force teams to take bad shots or try to beat you one-on-one because you know Kent is back there."
Lucia said that he wanted to see even more from his defensemen as far as jumping in the play, and added that they'd continue to develop that aggression.
"They're more stay-at-home defensemen and we actually would like a fourth guy to get involved in the play more," Lucia said. "That's something we're going to work on."
For Patterson, the work is relatively simple, having set a tone where he's seeing the puck well, talking to his teammates to help direct the play, and rarely, if ever, allowing an opponent's shot to cross the goal line. The one person he hasn't talked to, yet, is Stauber.
"He was one of my role models and mentors growing up," Patterson said. "I haven't talked to him lately, but hopefully I'll get to talk to him soon."
The next time they speak, if current trends hold, it will be via a call from the Gophers goaltending legend to congratulate the newbie on sole possession of the school's season shutout record.