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On Minnesota's shootout struggles and trying to understand the charity point

The Gopher men and women's hockey teams have combined to go 2 for 11 in shootouts in the last 3 years despite skilled offenses and goaltending. We try to understand the charity point.

Matt Christians

There's only one way to start off this article and that's by admitting that I don't understand shootouts.

It isn't just that I dislike the event deciding a conference point and nothing else. (Don't get me started on non-conference shootouts being even more pointless or the fact there are points on the line for 20 games instead of 82 like the NHL. Explaining those is worth an additional article and a half.) That's just an opinion and one which seems to be changing. There's a generation gap.

Much to my surprise, fans at Mariucci Arena a couple months back booed the announcement that an exhibition game heading to overtime wouldn't have a shootout even though, like the game, it would count as much as the "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" points. Players seem to love shootouts win or lose, old-school coaches hate them, new school coaches accept them and fans are on both sides.

No, the thing about shootouts I don't understand is that the perception of the charity contest doesn't match hockey reality. The best offense and best goaltender doesn't always make for the best shootout team.

Honestly, I don't think I'm alone.

The University of Minnesota men's team is coming up on the one-year anniversary of the time it won a shootout in the Big Ten era. Yes, time. (There may be others throughout its history, but the only other one that comes to mind is a shootout win over Air Force in the 2008 Mariucci Classic.) On January 25, 2014 Minnesota took home the inaugural North Star College Cup by defeating Minnesota-Duluth in one in a game that officially ended as a 4-4 tie.

Including that contest, the Gophers have gone 1 for 8 since joining the Big Ten - one of two conferences (NCHC being the other) that use shootouts - from the WCHA, where games in end in good ol' fashioned ties.

Entering the Big Ten era, I thought the skill throughout the Gopher lineup would translate well with shootouts. That hasn't been the case. This season Minnesota is winless in 2 shootouts with conference points (3 for a regulation/OT win, 2 for a shootout, 1 for a SO loss and 0 for a regulation/OT loss) given to Michigan State and the Badgers. The latest happened Friday against Wisconsin, leaving head coach Don Lucia to say "shootouts haven't been our thing."

When pressed for an answer for the troubles, he responded with "I don't know."

The two lost points currently don't make that much of a difference in the Big Ten standings. Even with them the Gophers would remain third behind Penn State and Michigan six games into a 20 game conference schedule. (The Nittany Lions have 2 games in hand on both teams.) It doesn't match the more crucial 3 lost points from an OT loss to the Wolverines at Yost.

Yet at a certain point the mental aspect of losing without losing reflects weirdly upon the team. A good team performance that results in a tie is much different than the one-on-one postgame contest between individuals. There are stats and ways to tell if the score reflects the total effort a team gave.

Not so much with the shootout.

But it's not just the men at Minnesota. The #2 ranked women's Gophers (21-1-3, 14-1-3-1 WCHA) average nearly 5 goals per game and are a week removed from winning a shootout for the first time in 3 years. (The WCHA does end games with shootouts for women's hockey.) In that time, head coach Brad Frost has won two national championships at Minnesota, been a part of a perfect season and lost 3 shootouts.

This year the Minnesota women have 4 players among the top ten in points and are a shining example of skill. Getting that extra point against Wisconsin despite the fact the team's second-best shootout player (Milicia McMillen) could not participate was more than a relief, however.

"It's been a monkey on our back for a long, long time," Frost said.

At several points the team has come close to winning a shootout, having the chance before eventually falling. Being on the victorious side didn't find a specific answer to the troubles.

Besides goaltender Amanda Leveille stopping all 3 Badgers, waiting through a review and having time to think before the final shooter, and Hannah Brandt scoring, there was Frost also saying a familiar "I don't know" when asked if there was anything specific that changed.

Leveille, like her men's counterpart Adam Wilcox, is one of the top players at her position. Both Minnesota goaltenders work on stopping breakaways and mimicking shootouts. The Gopher women practice shootouts every Thursday with both the top shooters and goalie winning evenly, according to Frost.

Wilcox, who acknowledges both he and the team have to get better at shootouts, is trying to find the answer.

"Especially when you're not winning at them, it's something you have to key on. Every day I try to take a couple extra breakaways and just try different stuff to see what's working because right now its obviously not clicking," he said.

Offensively, both teams have shooters. Brandt, second in the nation in goals is what Frost calls "an automatic choice" while Lucia has third line forward Seth Ambroz. The senior forward is 3 for 4 in shootouts, including the lone one against Wisconsin with an homage to Patrick Kane despite regularly playing a style which does not resemble Kane.

Maybe that is it. Watching Kane or Mikko Koivu, the Mariano Rivera of shootouts, the skills of being a top creative forward and shootout specialist seem to go together. Maybe they don't. Maybe practice makes perfect with both skills separately in a way that doesn't transfer to the previous sixty-five minutes, either on offense or in goal.

That's how Michigan State, which seems to find itself in more shootouts than anyone, and junior goalie Jake Hildebrand see it. Via the Lansing State Journal:

Hildebrand has been in goal for 11 of MSU's 12 ties over the past three seasons. He was 0 for 2 in shootouts as a freshman, then won 4 of 7 last season and is 2 for 2 this year to extend his streak to three in a row.

"I remember at the end of juniors and the beginning of my college career, I lost seven (shootouts) in a row," Hildebrand said. "I just started taking them a lot more lightly. A bounce here or there, and you win or lose. It's really tough, so I try not to take them too seriously and just have fun with them.

The Spartans previously played with shootouts in the now-defunct CCHA. To take it one step further, no former CCHA team lost a shootout to a team new to shootouts in 2013-14. The two CCHA teams in the NCHC went 3 for 3 while Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State (an independent) were a combined 0 for 5.

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin's first-ever shootout win was last Friday against the Gophers.

On the women's side, Minnesota rarely ties games - a 41-0-0 season will do that - so rarely gets the opportunity in a game situation.

If there is any good news it is that the men won't be able to celebrate the one year anniversary of last winning a shootout by re-living the experience. The North Star Championship game will be decided by overtime. There must be a winner.

Besides that? Minnesota has 14 conference games remaining. The work is being put in by all to figure out how to be closer to Michigan State if another conference point ends up being on the line. As far as how it goes, there are only three words which come to mind.

I don't know.


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --