Top-ranked Gophers say they’re ‘too easy to play against’

Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei said top-ranked, undefeated Minnesota hasn't yet played its best hockey.

Eric Hartline/Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers men’s hockey team is off to a 4-0 start to the year and is ranked No. 1 in both major college hockey polls. Even as that’s taken place, though, Minnesota believes it can be better.

Expectations are always high for the Gophers program, both from fans and players alike. Though Minnesota has skated to a perfect record through two weekends, the Gophers feel they’re far from perfect.

"I think we’re a work in progress," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, whose team faces St. Cloud State this weekend. "I think there’s areas of our game that we haven’t been as good as I hoped we would be right now. I think we’re too easy to play against. We don’t spend enough time in the offensive zone, too many one-and-dones. I think we’ve got to be harder on pucks. Same thing in our own zone.

"Even though we are 4-0, there’s plenty to our game that needs much improvement."

The Gophers are the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten through two weeks with an average of 4.25 goals per game. Minnesota has been stout defensively, allowing just 2.00 goals a night — tops in the conference. And both the Gophers’ power play and penalty kill units have the best percentages in the Big Ten at 35.3 and 89.5 percent, respectively.

Given all of that, it’s a bit scary to think that Minnesota believes it can take its game to another level.

"Obviously we’ve got to four wins, which is huge. Our main goal is to win. But I don’t think we’ve played our best," said defenseman Brady Skjei. "This past weekend we made some big mistakes and they cost us a little bit during the games. We’ve got a lot more we can show, but 4-0 is obviously a good start."

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Like his coach alluded to, Skjei also mentioned that he feels the Gophers need to be harder to play against. He added Minnesota has to be tougher in its own defensive zone, improve on sustaining forechecks, and improve in front of its own net.

The Gophers have praised the work of junior goaltender Adam Wilcox, but they also admitted after last Saturday’s 5-3 win over Bemidji State that sometimes they get too comfortable knowing Wilcox is in net. Against the Beavers on Saturday, that led to a pair of second-period goals for BSU as Minnesota fell behind for the first time all season.

As good as Wilcox is, the Gophers know they need to play better in front of him.

"I think the biggest thing is tracking back. When you see a 2-on-1 or something, it’s like, ‘OK, well, chances are (Wilcox) is going to stop it for us,’" said senior captain Kyle Rau. "But we’ve got to keep coming and get the second wave and the rebounds. His job is to stop the first one and then we’ve got to get the other ones. It is something you’ve got to worry about a little bit."

The Gophers started out 4-0 last season, too, before a tie against Boston College in the fifth game of the season. Minnesota hasn’t had a 6-0 start to a season since 2001-02 when they won the first of two straight national championships.

To get to 6-0 this weekend against St. Cloud State won’t be easy. And after the first four games of the year, the Gophers insist they have plenty of work to do if they hope to pull off another sweep.

"A lot of breakdowns that ended up as goals," Rau said. "But it’s easy stuff to fix. We like where we’re at, but we’ve got a long way to go."

Embracing the home-and-home series: Since the Gophers and Huskies are no longer in the same conference, this is the only time all year they’ll face each other. Friday’s game of the two-game series will be played at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn., while Saturday’s finale will be held at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

It’s one of two home-and-homes Minnesota has this year, as the Gophers will do the same thing with fellow in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth in mid-November. This Saturday’s game is a bit unusual, though, because it will start at 4 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m. faceoff.

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Still, the Gophers are looking forward to the chance to play a few more teams in the state of Minnesota — even if it means a slightly unusual schedule.

"We love them, actually," Rau said of the home-and-homes. "They’re fun to go to different places and play such a good rivalry. St. Cloud’s a fun spot to play, and then to get to end the weekend at home is awesome, too. If we have a good Friday night, we’ve got a chance for a great weekend."

St. Cloud fresh off big upset: The Huskies come into this series after a pair of games last weekend at No. 2 Union — the same team that upended Minnesota in the national championship a year ago. After a 5-1 loss Friday, St. Cloud State responded with a 3-2 victory that snapped Union’s 17-game winning streak and 22-game unbeaten streak.

Not surprisingly, the Gophers took note of the fact that the Huskies knocked off a team Minnesota couldn’t last year.

"Yeah, we’re going to pay attention to it. We watched a lot of video on them," Rau said. "They’re obviously feeling pretty good about how they fared out in Union. . . . They’ve got to have some confidence rolling into this weekend playing us. We’ve got to be ready to go."

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