Frozen Four Preview: Minnesota

The University of Minnesota is one of the most storied programs in all of college hockey, but coming into this season, it seemed as though a dark cloud was hanging over the program. Having missed the NCAA tournament each year since 2008, the Gophers bounced back in a big way in 2011-12.

Thanks to an explosive offense, Minnesota was one of the most exciting teams in college hockey. Throw in strong goaltending and adequate defense and Minnesota put together one of the best seasons in all of college hockey this year and captured the WCHA regular-season title.

Thursday, the Gophers will meet the Boston College Eagles in what should be an all-time great Frozen Four match up Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Two of the historically elite programs in college hockey going head-to-head brings enough intrigue, but throw in 26 NHL drafted prospects, two highly successful coaches, with stakes as high as these and you’ve got yourself a good ole fashioned barn burner.

Sophomore Bump

We’ve all heard of the sophomore slump, but there’s no such thing at Minnesota. With 12 sophomores, this team couldn’t afford such a slump anyway. The second-year Gophers have been leading the way offensively for the squad.

Five of the seven leading point-getters for Minnesota are sophomores, including Erik Haula who has paced the Gophers with 48 points this year. Nick Bjugstad has led the team with 25 goals so far. Nate Schmidt was one of the top point-getting defensemen in the entire country with 41 points including 38 assists, which ranks third in the nation overall.

As a class, the sophomores have posted 240 of Minnesota’s 414 points.

Don Lucia (Minnesota Athletics)

Typically, in college hockey, it’s the upperclassmen who do most of the offensive damage, but not so for the Gophers. Getting this kind of production out of players merely in their second year of school is pretty impressive and a big reason Minnesota is back in this position.

The question that won’t matter until after this weekend is, how many of these sophomores will stay to become juniors? Guess head coach Don Lucia will cross that bridge when he gets there. When you recruit some of the top players in the country, that’s always going to be an issue, but for now, Boston College seems like a bit more of an immediate concern.

Tao of Rau

Sure, the sophomores have done most of the damage, but one of the most consistent offensive performers for the Golden Gophers this year was freshman Kyle Rau.

Kyle Rau (via College Hockey, Inc.)

The hero of last year’s Minnesota State High School championship, Rau continues to prove he’s a big-game performer. With 43 points, he ranks second on the Gophers. Averaging over a point-per-game as a true freshman is far from easy to do. There’s a reason most colleges want guys to play a few years of junior.

Rau’s 18 goals on the season put him third on the team, but many of those 18 goals were important. The Florida Panthers prospect posted a team-best six game-winning goals.

Concerns about Rau’s size and skating ability during his draft year have been washed away by the way this freshman competes. The reason the 5-8, 173-pound winger has had so much success in the goal column is because he’s not afraid to go to the hard areas to make a play. So many of Rau’s goals have been from in tight, right on top of the crease, where most players his size would fly by.

Rau plays playoff-style hockey year round, where every shift is his last and every puck needs to be his. That’s what makes Rau one of the most exciting freshmen to watch in college hockey.

Goals, Goals, Goals

The Minnesota Golden Gophers score a whole bunch. With a nation-leading 154 goals this year, the Gophers averaged a staggering 3.7 goals-per-game.

Six players have scored in the double digits, and two have reached the 20-goal plateau (Nick Bjugstad, 25; Erik Haula, 20). Every skater that plays regularly for the Gophers has scored at least one goal this year.

The Gophers also have only allowed an average of 2.21 goals-per-game. Normally that’s pretty good, but among Frozen Four teams, that’s the highest average. Just speaks to how good the goaltending and defense of all four teams is.

Players to Watch

Nick Bjugstad — Simply one of the best NHL prospects playing in the NCAA all season long, Bjugstad has come alive as a sophomore. Despite recent struggles to find the net (four goals in his last 13 games), Bjugstad posted 25 goals and 42 points. Bjugstad has pro size, tremendous skating ability, good hands and a very strong shot. I’m sure the Florida Panthers would love to sign Bjugstad in the offseason and it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe he’d be able to jump into that lineup and contribute as early as next season.

Kent Patterson — The senior goaltender had a rather stellar campaign between the pipes for the Gophers. Playing nearly every minute of every game this season, Patterson had one of the heaviest work loads in the country for goaltenders. He rewarded his coach with a 28-13-1 record, 2.23 goals-against average, .911 save percentage and a national best seven shutouts. Patterson gives the Gophers a chance in every game, and with a team that scores as much as they do, he doesn’t have to do too much.

Erik Haula — The Finnish forward has already doubled his production from his freshman season and leads the Gophers with 48 points. Haula’s terrific on-ice vision has allowed him to become more of a dual threat as a sophomore. Not only is he a great set-up man, he’s become quite the goal scorer with 20 this year, good for second on the team. The Finn is more of a cerebral hockey player, playing a smart, but skilled game.

Kyle Rau — See Above.

Nate Schmidt — Nate Schmidt only appeared in 13 games as a freshman, registering one assist last year. So to say his 38-assist, 41-point performance this year was a surprise would be putting it rather mildly. Schmidt is a big reason the Gophers are so good in transition. He’s always got a strong first pass out of the zone to spring the speedy forwards up ice. He’s also able to distribute well in the offensive zone. Having a strong puck-moving defenseman like Schmidt is an added bonus to a team as strong offensively as Minnesota. It’s hard to believe he’s one of the few players on this Minnesota team that wasn’t drafted.

Mark Alt — The big sophomore defenseman who had to choose between football and hockey has continually shown he made the right choice. Alt has posted five goals and 17 assists and has shown a strong two way game. At 6-3, 194, Alt has great size and strength. While he doesn’t play a punishing style of defense, he gets the job done. Alt is one of the many top-end defensemen Carolina has in its system. One of the other ones will be on the other side of the red line tonight in BC’s Brian Dumoulin.

Minnesoata By The Numbers

Record: 28-13-1
Goals For: 154 (3.7 per game)
Goals Against: 
93 (2.2 per game)
Power Play: 
43/184 (23.2%)
Penalty Kill:
 149/184 (81%)

Offensive Leaders: Erik Haula (20-28–48), Kyle Rau (18-25–43), Nick Bjugstad (25-17–42)

Class Breakdown: Seniors – 7; Juniors – 1; Sophomores – 12; Freshmen – 7

NHL Draft Picks: 17

In order of overall selection:
Nick Bjugstad – FLA, 1st Rd., 19th overall, 2010
Zach Budish – NSH, 2nd Rd., 41st overall, 2009
Nico Sacchetti – DAL, 2nd Rd., 50th overall, 2007
Mark Alt – CAR, 2nd Rd., 53rd overall, 2010
Justin Holl – CHI, 2nd Rd., 54th overall, 2010
Jake Hansen – CLB, 3rd Rd., 68th overall, 2007
Kyle Rau – FLA, 3rd Rd., 91st overall, 2011
Kent Patterson – COL, 4th Rd., 113th overall, 2007
Seth Helgeson – NJD, 4th Rd., 114th overall, 2009
Seth Ambroz – CLB, 5th Rd., 128th overall, 2011
Tyler Matson – VAN, 6th Rd., 176th overall, 2007
Travis Boyd – WSH, 7th Rd., 177th overall, 2011
Erik Haula – MIN, 7th Rd., 182nd overall, 2009
Nick Larson – WSH, 7th Rd., 185th overall, 2007
Nate Condon – COL, 7th Rd., 200th overall, 2008
Ben Marshall –  DET, 7th Rd., 201st overall, 2010
Christian Isackson – BUF, 7th Rd., 203rd overall, 2010

How They Got To Tampa

West Regional Champions
Regional Semi: Defeated Boston University — 7-3
Regional Final: Defeated North Dakota — 5-2

Helpful Links

Minnesota Ice Hockey Official Website
Minnesota Roster and Bios
Minnesota Season Statistics

Beat Writer: Roman Augustoviz — TwitterWebsite
Blogger: Nate Wells — TwitterWebsite

For more Frozen Four info, including storylines, notes, stats and more, visit College Hockey, Inc.

Coming up Next: Boston College

Other Frozen Four Previews:
Union
Ferris State
Boston College

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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