MINNESOTA There's a certain philosophy to it all, the fundamental problem of puck in net, of learning to stop something that should be inevitable.
Being an effective goalie involves more than brute strength and hours of conditioning. It's beyond just sharp vision and a keen sense of space. Succeeding in goal is, to a large extent, a mindset, and negotiating the mental aspect of his position has been at the forefront for Gophers' goalie Kent Patterson this season.
Patterson, a native of Plymoth, Minn., assumed the role of the Gophers' starting goalie mid-way through his junior season a year ago. He finished that first season as a starter with a record of 14-9-6 and had a .920 save percentage. That save percentage was the best in the WCHA, and Patterson was named to the All-WCHA Second Team at the end of the season. But those honors and statistics were just a hint of what was to come.
Last season, Patterson did not record a shutout. He'd had shutouts in high school and juniors, of course, but never at the collegiate level. All that changed quickly, though, at the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
The senior opened the season with three straight shutouts. The first was in an exhibition game against British Columbia, and the next two, on Oct. 7 and 8, came against Sacred Heart, 9-0 and 6-0. Suddenly, Patterson was rolling, starting the season with a stretch of games that would be difficult, if not impossible, to top.
"That first week, getting off to a great start like that definitely set the tone right for the beginning of the season," Patterson said. "Getting two in the same week was something I never would have expected, but it's kind of a building block."
Just two weeks later, Patterson shut out Vermont, 6-0. A week later, a 5-0 night against Alaska-Anchorage gave Patterson shutout number four, and at that point, history entered the conversation. The Gopher record for shutouts in a season, set by Robb Stauber in 1988, stood at five, and Patterson was just one away from tying that mark.
He did so on Nov. 4 at Mariucci Arena, defeating North Dakota 2-0. Then, on Nov. 19, in just the team's 14th game, the Gophers and Patterson defeated St. Cloud State 5-0 at home. Patterson had eclipsed Stauber's record, and he seemed on pace to obliterate it.
And though Patterson may have been a bit shocked by his early performance, his coach, Don Lucia, wasn't nearly so surprised.
"I don't know if you expect to break records, but you can expect with the way he played the second half of last year that he would continue on and have a great year," Lucia said.
It's been more than two months since Patterson broke the record. He's played in 17 games, winning eight, losing eight and tying one. He's allowed 44 goals without a single shutout. And though that stretch might appear discouraging, it's just a return to statistics that aren't bordering on preposterous. During his streak, Patterson averaged a shutout every 2.3 games. Now, he's averaging a shutout every 5.2 games, which is still impressive.
As exciting as it was for Patterson to break the record held for 24 years by his a man who'd been his mentor for years, his shutouts also introduced him to the dangerous concept of perfection. Especially earlier in the season, it was difficult for him not to think about the shutouts. They were happening so often. How could he not? But to dwell on them, to take the ice every night with that possibility in the back of his mind, would not have been constructive.
"It's something you don't want to get in the back of your head because if you strive for perfection . . . you're just going to end up hurting yourself in the end," Patterson said.
Patterson added that especially late in games when he hasn't yet let in a goal, the idea of a shutout seems to creep into the periphery of his consciousness. But to focus on anything other than the puck and players gliding impossibly fast across the ice is dangerous for Patterson, and to allow his thoughts to stray is to fail to play every minute of every game. On several occasions this year he's let in a late goal, and he at least partially blames his lack of focus, his tendency to let his mind jump to the possibility of a shutout, for the slip-ups.
Stauber and goalies coach Justin Johnson have offered Patterson advice and tips about how to keep himself mentally in the game. Stauber always has stressed sticking with the game for every minute, and he also has helped Patterson get a different perspective on how to make difficult saves. From their counsel, the senior has developed a strategy for keeping his mind on lockdown during games.
"It can be hard sometimes," Patterson said. "When it sticks around, you just can't put it away. You just kind of take your mind off of it and take yourself out of the game and then put yourself back into the game."
The point that Patterson hinges on when he discusses all this -- besides the honor of having his name mentioned alongside Gopher greats, that is -- is that a shutout doesn't count for anything more than any other win. For a player who's known to teammates for being especially hard on himself, remembering that is crucial. Letting in what defenseman Mark Alt called a "light goal" isn't ideal, but in some games, it really doesn't matter past being a bruise on Patterson's confidence.
"He doesn't expect to make mistakes," Alt said. "Goalies can let in easy goals almost every game, but for him that's just something that's not expected. So when he does let in a light goal, and he's let in very few, it's interesting to see him. He's down on himself."
Alt added that most goalies he's played with have had some element of Patterson's intensity. Being hard on themselves is what makes them so good, and no doubt grappling with perfection is something that many before Patterson have struggled with. It's an obstacle to Patterson's game, but it's also the lynch pin. Without the demands the goalie puts on himself, he wouldn't have the success he has. But when taken too far, that push to be perfect can also ruin a season or a career.
In Patterson's case, though, taking a step back is crucial. Despite the recent shutout drought, he still broke a school record in the amount of time it would have taken a lesser goalie to get comfortable in the net. His season is still remarkable, and Patterson's past 17 games have rendered his numbers closer to believable. He currently has a save percentage of .914, and he's second in the WCHA in goals allowed average, at 2.20. They're numbers any goalie should be proud of, and there's no doubt Patterson and his teammates are pleased.
Six games remain in the Gophers' regular season. Patterson may go the rest of the year without another shutout. Or he might get one on Friday night against Bemidji State. But to him, it really doesn't matter. The goalie has learned that there's no place for perfection in his drive to win, and that to have the edge, he's best to forget the precedent he set for himself in the early days of this season.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.