Recent events have come to a head, though, and my thoughts on this team have become a little more colorful than a postgame article on a respected Gopher hockey website allow.
The Gophers are coming off a sweep at the hands of the unranked Michigan Wolverines, putting them 3-7-1 in their last 11 games. The team now sits at 10-7-1 overall and is only ahead of the historically bad Wisconsin in the B1G conference.
Minnesota has lost to such powerhouses as the US Under 18 Team, Merrimack and Northeastern, rarely looking the part of a national title contender.
The team that lost in the NCAA Championship game last season and returned all of its key players has seen major statistical and performance regressions from nearly all of its stars:
- First Team All-American Mike Reilly continues to dazzle with the puck, but this season he's also been inept without it. Reilly may have a foot out the door to the NHL already, because the junior defenseman and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season seems to have forgotten how to play his position, looking lazy and lackadasical in his own defensive zone. More often than not recently, when there's been a goal as a result of a missed assignment or a sloppy backcheck, number five is on the ice.
- Second Team All-American (honestly not sure how he wasn't a 1st teamer) and Big Ten Player of the Year last year Adam Wilcox has been human this season, when we've come to expect him to be greater than. Wilcox was finally, blissfully pulled in favor of Nick Lehr in Minnesota's pathetic 7-5 loss Saturday at Michigan after giving up five goals on 16 shots through just 5 minutes of the second period. Of course I don't think all of the goals have been Wilcox's fault by any means (see above bullet point), but this team has come to expect greatness from its goaltender, and he's been just good.
- The high-end sophomores have not been good enough. Second-year forwards Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata and Hudson Fasching have had flashes of solid play but overall have simply not taken a step forward. Kloos is about on pace with his freshman campaign, but Cammarata and Fasching have mustered a combined six goals in 35 games this season. These guys are counted on to carry the mail offensively for this team, and need to step their games up for this team to succeed. Another sophomore not called on to score as much is Vinni Lettieri - I like his game and what he brings to the table, but he too has only scored three times in 17 games. Granted he's playing a more checking / energy role, but it's another low goal total for a player with flashes of offense to his game.
- The senior forwards haven't fared much better on the scoring front, with the exception of Kyle Rau and Travis Boyd. Boyd missed some time with an injury but has been productive this year, netting seven goals in just 11 games, and Rau has scored seven in his 18 games played. Other than them, though, the other senior forwards (Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz and Christian Isackson) have scored seven goals between them despite playing in every game this season. Isackson has never been a reliable scoring option for the Gophers, but Warning and Ambroz each scored 14 goals last season and this team NEEDS scoring depth in order to win.
- Credit where it's due, though: Connor Reilly has been a very pleasant surprise. He's now scored 10 goals this season to lead the team, and has been perhaps the only Gopher to "step up" his game this season. As mentioned above Rau and Boyd have been good on both sides of the puck. Defensemen Ben Marshall, Jake Bischoff, Michael Brodzinski and Ryan Collins have had to be good to fill the big void left by the injured Brady Skjei and the have been. Having Skjei back and at full health for the remainder of the season can only bode well for this team that has had to withstand more than its fair share of injuries.
The season isn't over. This team still has the pieces to make a deep run into the postseason, and if everyone plays like they are able to they have a chance to win it all this year. But they need to start playing well first, and that means that the guys they count on to be their big players have to start playing like it. It would be a shame if this team sputtered out before the NCAA Tournament because they were reading their own press clippings all summer long.
We'll see if they turn it around. I'll be watching every time they take the ice, for better or worse.