Thursday, April 5, 2012

Return to Normalcy: A Gopher Hockey Analysis & Frozen Four Preview

Freshman Kyle Rau (18 goals, 25 assists) and sophomore Nick Bjugstad (25 G, 17 A) are two of the top reasons the Gophers have re-emerged this season from a brief spell of mediocrity.
Disclaimer: I know very little about hockey. I know even less about Minnesota Golden Gopher Hockey. The highest level hockey game I have ever attended was the MIAC championships at Gustavus Adolphus. My only connection to Gopher hockey comes from that one time I hung out with former center Patrick White at college. So keep this in mind as we delve, together, into some relatively new (for me) territory of Minnesota fandom.

The other day, I lumped Gopher hockey in with the Gopher football and basketball programs as the three main sources of frustration for Minnesota college sports fans (the fact that these are the three big moneymaking programs at the U is not a coincidence). However, the Gopher hockey program has something the other two programs do not; a national championship earned within the last 50 years.

Gopher hockey has traditionally been a national powerhouse. They have been to the NCAA tournament 33 times, winning five national titles. With high achievement come high expectations, however, and recent seasons have failed to measure up. Their last NCAA appearance was a 5-2 drubbing in 2008 at the hands of Boston College. Four consecutive seasons of mid-table finishes in the WCHA and zero NCAA tournament wins had many calling for Coach Don Lucia to be fired. Then-AD Joel Maturi stuck with him, and it proved to be a wise decision, if this season’s return to form is any indication.

Being that I am a casual, at best, hockey fan, and that I’ve never actually watched a Gopher hockey game start-to-finish, I can only rely on statistics to find the differences between this season and previous, less successful seasons. The first and most obvious statistic is total goals scored, which at 154 goals this season, is the highest total since 2006-07, the year of their last NCAA victory. So you win more if you score more. Wow. Who knew? It makes sense, then, that goals per game would be the highest since 06-07 (it is; 3.7 per game). Conversely, total goals allowed is the lowest since 06-07 at 93 (give up fewer goals, you’ll win more, yeah, yeah, we get it).

Senior goalie Kent Patterson has set a single-season school record by posting seven shutouts this season.
Going to the next level, I saw that shot percentage also went up, suggesting that this year’s team is capitalizing on opportunities at a better rate than previous years. I also noticed that assists were the highest they’ve been since 06-07, but also that the difference in total assists between this season and previous seasons was higher than the difference between goals. Noticing this led me to create a new stat, assists per goal (I googled this later. Turns out it’s already a thing. But I thought of it by myself!). Assists per goal is a useful measure of offensive efficiency. Simply put, if the offense is working, more people are touching the puck, and goals scored will have two people getting assists, not one or zero.

When this assists per goal stat, which is the highest it’s been since 08-09 at 1.69, is coupled with the high shot percentage, we can begin to see a clearer picture. Not only is the offense working in a better rhythm, but the shots created within this offense are easier, higher percentage shots, and the goal scorers are capitalizing on these high percentage shots.

Complimenting this more efficient offense is a less pressurized defense. This season’s total save percentage of .911 is neither outstanding nor awful, but the total number of saves is a very low 952. The fact that our goaltender has only had to face 1043 shots all season tells us two things. It tells us that the defensemen are doing a great job of blocking shots and clearing the zone, and that the forwards and centers are effectively dominating possession of the puck in the offensive zone. This latter assumption fits in with the analysis of a more efficient offense we found earlier.

This team’s success in the stat sheet has translated into success on the ice. Tomorrow night marks the return of the Golden Gopher hockey team to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time since 2005. The Gophers will be facing off against Boston College, the last team to beat them in the NCAA tournament. It should be a great matchup between a potent offense and a stout defense. The Gophers boast four players that have over 40 points this season, while BC will counter with goalie Parker Milner and his 1.7 GAA. Be sure to check it out tonight at 7pm CT on ESPN2.

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