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Gophers Hockey: Minnesota enter Boston trip not playing like it wants

Coming off two losses and a 1-3 record not including an exhibition OT loss, the Gophers head to Boston struggling for goals lately.

Ben Marshall (10)
Ben Marshall (10)
Minnesota Athletics

Minnesota's first regular season trip to Boston in nearly 10 years comes at a time where the Gophers seem as similarly far away from their second.

Riding a two game losing streak that also unofficially includes an OT exhibition loss  to the USNDTP U-18 team, 7-3-0 Minnesota will face Boston College (Friday 5:00 p.m. CT) and Northeastern (Saturday 6:00 p.m. CT) this weekend. The road similarly has not been kind. In two true road games this year the Gophers have lost both.

Terms like "atrocious" and "frustrated" have been thrown around by players to describe their recent play. Over the last eight periods of collegiate action, stretching back to a 4-2 win November 9th against Notre Dame, the Gopher offense has struggled. Minnesota, which averages over 3 goals a game, has only two goals in that stretch. The power play is 0-7 over the same time.

"We have to go back to the drawing board tomorrow and keep working and hopefully play better than we have," junior forward Ryan Reilly said following the exhibition loss.

Although not counting in the standings, the last game reached a point where head coach Don Lucia said nothing to his players after last Friday's effort.

"He didn't really need to. We knew how we played," said senior defenseman Ben Marshall (Detroit Red Wings). "He didn't need to say anything."

There are many different ways to look at the team's offensive struggles following a 6-0-0 start to 2014-15. Injuries to Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals), who has three goals in five games, Vinni Lettieri and defenseman Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) among the normal bumps and bruises haven't helped. Still, it's not the guys out of the lineup as much as what the ones in have done. The last four games have featured an increase of turnovers and stretches of bad passes along with not seeming ready at puck drop.

Fast starts have been Minnesota's signature in recent years, but against both Minnesota-Duluth and the US U-18 team the Gophers were slow to get going. The Bulldogs twice scored off of plays culminating from the opening shift. Each first period saw UMD out-shoot and out-chance at even strength (39.13% Friday and 48.15% Saturday). Both nights could have been routs if not for Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) in net.

(The Wilcox-less exhibition wasn't much better. Aside from taking the exhibition for what it was, the U-18 team out-shot Minnesota 40-29 throughout the game and had 9 more shot attempts in the first period.)

"Usually when you win the 10 minute game you have a pretty good chance to win the game. That's going to be important going on the road," Lucia said.

"We have to clean up our game. Far too many turnovers whether it's coming out of our own zone. Far too many turnovers in the offensive zone where we're one and done. There are areas of our game where we have to improve upon if we want to take that next step as a team."

November's 1-3 stretch has been a wakeup call for the Gophers, which are looking to avoid the team's first three-game losing streak since December 2011 and January 2012. The players have been working hard and getting back to the basics in practice, according to senior captain Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers).

"There were times last year when we felt like we weren't having a good year. It's all part of the deal. You have ups and downs," he said. "Right now we just had one of our downs and we're trying to get back up."

That will happen steps away from TD Garden, site of the 2015 Frozen Four. When the season began Thanksgiving weekend appeared on the schedule as a chance for Minnesota to show off and face quality competition on a rare East Coast trip. A last chance to get a test before Big Ten conference play begins next week.

Instead, it's one that for the team has become a little more introspective.

"We can talk about Boston all we want, but when it comes down to it it's about us," Marshall said. "We know our skill, we know our limitations on this team and that's what we have to figure out. We have to get back to playing together as a team. When that comes together we'll match up against Boston very well."

Oddly enough, Minnesota faces a Boston College team that is similar in more ways than sweater colors. The Eagles (7-5-0, 3-3-0 Hockey East), coming off a Frozen Four appearance, are a team that has borderline elite goaltending from Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) (.921 save% in 11 games). There are talented underclassmen up front mixed with senior leadership.  The blue line has several puck movers, including potential 2015 top pick Noah Hanifin, which can start a rush from anywhere.

So it should be no surprise BC has already faced its own turnaround. The Eagles have won three consecutive games, scoring nine even strength goals in the last two, to stem the blow from the team's first four game losing streak in a decade.

The same holds true for Saturday's opponent. Northeastern (2-9-1, 2-5-1 Hockey East) began the year 0-8-1 before the Huskies won its last two home games at Matthews Arena.

On a long enough timeline it will for every team in college hockey at one point or another. Even the best teams struggle. The players have said the right things. Lessons have been learned. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things, however. The teams that are able to do so are the ones which find long-term success.

Minnesota's end goal to return in April 2015 to Boston remains despite the recent struggles. So does the structure of a team which has the talent and experience to find its way back. Yet for the time being, this road trip is one where the Gophers metaphorically and physically playing miles away from TD Garden stands out. This weekend Minnesota has a carrot dangling right in front of its nose.

"It's a long season. Hopefully (Minnesota-Duluth) was one of those weekends we'll look back on in two months and no one will even remember," said Rau. "We'll think about it as a good turning stick and not measure us as how our season went."


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