Sheehy, Nanne, Szmatula, Rossini Get Goals in 4-1 Saturday Win
Minneapolis, Minn. — Captain Tyler Sheehy said the mental refresh over break was going to be huge for the Gophers, and his message to the team heading into the second half was to relax, play hockey, and have fun with it. No. 10 Minnesota (12-9-1, 4-7-1-1) responded with two solid games against Army West Point (8-10-2, 6-7-2) earning a sweep with 3-0 and 4-1 wins.
Sheehy, last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, didn’t have the smoothest first half with five goals and seven assists in 18 games, but he got both opening goals against Army this weekend.
“When you’re a captain and you’re not scoring, you feel like you’re letting the team down,” said coach Don Lucia. “It becomes a bit more difficult to lead when you’re an offensive guy and you’re expected to score. If you’re a captain and you aren’t a big goal scorer it’s not as big a deal, but when you’ve put up numbers in the past you want to continue to do that.”
Lucia had to shake up the Minnesota line chart this weekend with Casey Mittelstadt and Ryan Lindgren at the World Junior Championships, and the line of Rem Pitlick-Tommy Novak-Sheehy controlled play most of the weekend when they were on the ice. Pitlick played most of last season with Sheehy and Justin Kloos, and Lucia has previously been hesitant to stack too much scoring experience together this season.
A couple things happened against Army that could provide some flexibility to the lineup and allow that to change.
A pair of freshman are emerging by providing some offense from an inconsistent defensive corps this season. Sam Rossini scored a goal and an assist in his 10th game of the season, giving him five points on the season and making him the leading defensive scorer in points per game for the Gophers. Clayton Phillips made his second appearance in the lineup Saturday, showing the quick feet and puck movement skills that could earn him a spot in the lineup going forward. And Tyler Nanne played wing for the third time this season, scoring a goal and nearly tallying another.
“The elements [Nanne] brought up front tonight was his speed, he was physical–I think his first shift he nailed a guy–he was tenacious on a puck, he can shoot it, so I thought he was effective up there,” said Lucia. “We have enough D now with Ryan coming back, but can we afford to put [Nanne] up? Does it make our team better? I think that’s the question we have to ask, because we need some more scoring upfront.”
Minnesota has struggled with offense and secondary all season long, and while Lucia has tried playing 11 forwards and 7 defensemen at times to give his top players more ice time, moving Nanne up front might be the next move to boost production.
One piece that has been pretty consistent has been goaltending. Mat Robson made his second start for the Gophers, his first at 3M Arena at Mariucci and quietly made 25 saves to get his first win for Minnesota. The 6’2” goalie didn’t allow many second chances until the Black Knights finally got to a rebound in the third period. Robson knew on Thursday that it was predetermined he would get a start on Saturday which turned out to be his first career win.
“It’s just nice to get a sweep under our belts to start the second half. It’s nice to have a smile on your face going into Monday,” said Robson. “[The win] means a lot, the guys have been terrific picking me up. Unfortunately I had to wait a couple extra weeks to get that first win, but now it’s out of the way we can just keep moving forward and hopefully a lot more to come.”
Lucia said the coaching staff made a decision once Robson was going to be eligible to get him some games at this point of the season by splitting some weekends. Lucia noted both goalies played well, will continue to play, and good competition makes both the keepers and the team better.
“We kind of got by with Eric [Schierhorn] playing every game and crossing our fingers he didn’t get hurt, but now we’re in a much better situation now,” Lucia said. “Mat’s got a very good track record of performance as well as Eric, so now if somebody gets hot we could ride him, or we have options.”
Another consistent pieces to the Gophers puzzle was a solid penalty kill and struggling power play. The killers went 4-for-4 while the man-advantage was 0-for-5 Saturday. Lucia and Associate Coach Mike Guentzel have been trying to get more offense from defensemen, putting an emphasis on getting 10 shots on goal a night from the blue line, but they haven’t gotten what they’re looking for yet on the power play.
“It was great some of our defensemen chipped in with some offense, our goaltending was very good, our penalty was really good–only thing that probably stunk was our power play over the weekend,” said Lucia. “We’ll get Casey back and figure out what we want to do with that… we delivered some good pucks and had some good chances, but on the power play they’re not going in.”
The Gophers will look ahead to a home and home with No. 1 St. Cloud State next Saturday and Sunday after the WJC ends on Friday night. It’s still to be determined if Lindgren and Mittelstadt will be available for the in-state showdown, but either way the last non-conference games of the season will have a big impact on Minnesota’s pairwise ranking due to the Huskies stong first have and standing in the NCHC.