Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 12/15/11
The University of Minnesota men's hockey squad has headed into a nearly three-week holiday layoff with a 14-5-1 overall record and an 11-3 mark in the WCHA. The latest USCHO national poll has the Gophers ranked No. 2, behind in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth. After last weekend's split at Mariucci Arena against Michigan Tech, Minnesota coach Don Lucia looked back on a successful first half of the season. "It's nice to get a win heading into the break," Lucia said following his team's Saturday win. "And, overall, I think we have put ourselves in a great position for the second half of the season." Minnesota continued a strange trend over the weekend of struggling on Friday night and then bouncing back with a top performance on Saturday. The Gophers are now 8-0-1 on Saturdays, 0-1 on Sundays and just 6-4-0 on Fridays. Included in those Friday numbers is a 1-4 record in their last five Friday night contests. "We will need to be a much better team on Friday night when we get back from break," Lucia said, "and as a coaching staff we will certainly look at changing some of our game day preparations for our Friday games." With the Gophers off until a Dec. 30 game against Niagara, the midseason grades for the team are in: OFFENSE: Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau will likely both be missing later this month to compete in the World Juniors, and together they have made the Gophers' offense electric so far this season. Bjugstad has 16 goals and 11 assists for 27 points, and Rau has 12 goals and 10 assists for 22 points. Bjugstad's 27 points rank third in the country, and Rau's 12 goals lead all freshmen. Senior captain Taylor Matson and Wild draftee sophomore Erik Haula also both have been superb so far. Lucia can count on four lines of solid depth in every game with talented role players like Jake Hansen, Zach Budish and Nate Condon. Minnesota is second in the nation with a 4.15 goals-per-game-average. GRADE: B DEFENSE: The Gophers have the fifth-lowest team goals against (2.05 per game) in the nation. But don't be fooled; that stat is skewed by Patterson's brilliant play. The blue line will make or break this team in the second half and likely into the postseason, which should include the NCAA Tournament. Sophomores Mark Alt and Nate Schmidt lead the way on the back end for the Gophers. Alt is coming off a tremendous weekend in which he posted two goals and three assists against Michigan Tech. For the season, he has four goals and nine assists for 13 points. Schmidt is second in the nation among defenseman with 21 points and he is also leading the Gophers blue line with a plus-15 rating. Seth Helgeson has been a physical force all season and rates nicely as a plus-11 player. The drop-off from there is a bit dramatic, however. GRADE: C GOALTENDING: Senior Kent Patterson has played every minute so far this season, and he has put up some terrific numbers. Patterson is 14-5-1 with a 2.04 GAA and a .921 save percentage. It will be surprising if sophomore Michael Shibrowski doesn't get a start in the Mariucci Classic in late December. However, don't expect anything different in the second half of the season, as Lucia has stated time and time again that Patterson will play nearly every game if he is healthy. Patterson leads the country with a school record six shutouts, and only Clarkson's Paul Karpowich has played more minutes. GRADE: A- SPECIAL TEAMS: This is another area that will need to improve if the Gophers hope to win the WCHA. The power play was clicking between 35 percent and 40 percent earlier this season, but the Gophers took a hit to their success rate as the first half wore on. Heading into the break, they are currently clicking at 24.7 percent. Last season, Minnesota killed a tick over 77 percent on its opponents' power-play tries, which ranked in the bottom five in the country. They have improved markedly in this area but still have room for further growth. So far this season, Minnesota has killed power plays at an 83.7 percent rate, which ranks No. 21 in the country. Patterson is an elite goaltender, so better numbers should be expected from this club in the second half. GRADE: B
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