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Gophers Hockey: Minnesota's scoring chances against Northeastern will tell the tale

An 0-3 start to the season has been coupled with a struggle for high-quality scoring chances at even strength.

Justin Kloos (25) leads the Gophers with 9 shots on goal.
Justin Kloos (25) leads the Gophers with 9 shots on goal.
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Minnesota (0-3-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) faces Northeastern (1-2-0, 0-0-0 Hockey East) in a two-game series at Mariucci Arena Friday and Saturday. Friday's game (October 23) begins at 7:00 p.m. CT and airs on FSN+ locally. Saturday's game (October 24) starts at 8:00 p.m. CT and airs on Fox Sports North.

The goals have not been coming this season for Minnesota. Neither have quality chances.

Both need to happen in order to get into the winning column this season against a team that faces a similar situation this weekend.

Entering this weekend's home series against Northeastern, 0-3 Minnesota has scored a whopping one goal on 69 shots in three games against Vermont and Minnesota Duluth. The power play is 0 for 12. (To make matters worse, Lake Superior State freshman forward Mitch Hults, who de-committed from Minnesota, has 3 goals and an assist in 5 games for the Lakers.) The longer the scoring drought goes, the more pressure the leadership put on itself; creating an ongoing cycle where pressure leads to making it harder to score and leading to more pressure.

"We just got to make plays. Personally I've been garbage these first three games as far as with the puck in the offensive zone, making plays like I should be as a veteran and leader ," said captain Justin Kloos, who was part of a freshmen-driven team that got off to a great start two seasons ago.

It's hockey's version of lying in bed, trying to fall to sleep.

Minnesota will score again this season. A lead will arise.  Tough non-conference schedule or small sample size aside, the team's paltry 1.4% shooting percentage (last among the 54 college hockey teams playing a game) is unattainable throughout a 35 game season.

(Even Kloos sounded like he changed his tune on Wednesday if his quotes are any indication, filling his glass to the half-full mark.)

That said, Minnesota's shot attempts, or where they come from, is the beginning of a concerning pattern.

The Gophers have been out-shot in all three games this season. Minnesota did out-chance Duluth on Saturday although it is thanks to a 3-0 score 21 minutes into the game and 7 power play chances. By the time Jared Thomas scored the third goal chances were 30-15 Bulldogs.

Not every team is going to match the dominant shot totals of 2012-13 (where that version out-shot its opponents in all but 3 games). Puck possession has been a key part of head coach Don Lucia's success, however.

What makes the shot deficiency harder to swallow is the lack of despite being getting off to a good start puck possession-wise.

The Gophers have the fifth-best face-off percentage in all of college hockey at 56.8%. Minnesota's 2 or 3 freshmen centers have been great at beginning plays with the puck. Tyler Sheehy has won 18 of his 24 face-offs. (His replacement this weekend, Vinni Lettieri, is 8 of 11.) Tommy Novak and Darian Romanko are also each above 50%.

What they have done with the position is smaller than this sentence. There has been little sustained zone presence in any of the three games regardless of how often Minnesota starts with the puck. Rebound opportunities have been few enough to have them stick out. Two players, Kloos and Hudson Fasching, have the majority of rebound chances through three games.

At even-strength, Minnesota further struggled against Duluth last weekend. 34 of the 64 attempts were even-strength opportunities Saturday. 10 were shots on goal. 12 more were blocked by the Bulldogs.

Even worse is the low number of shots in the slot. So many of the team's opportunities through three games have been to the outside - since the opening period of the season every attempt by Taylor Cammarata has been away - or from the blue line by defensemen like Nick Seeler and Michael Brodzinski.

Jack Ramsey's open shot by himself in the first period Saturday was the only Gopher chance in the slot, either even strength or power play. (Minnesota was out-shot 17-2 in the first period, not getting a SOG over the final 15 minutes.) No one had a chance below the face-off dot.

In the second and third period, Minnesota's forwards had 4 even strength chances below the dot Tommy Novak's shot in the second period was blocked while Kloos, Leon Bristedt and Lettieri shot wide. Friday's total was six (Bristedt, Novak, Kloos with two) out of 42 even-strength chances with the sixth being the only goal, scored by Brent Gates on his second high-chance opportunity of the evening.

On the other side Duluth had 7 even strength high scoring chances in just the first period Saturday.

It would be one thing if the Gophers were able to lean on a power play that is doing well. That isn't the case so far this season. One can help cover for the other. Neither is where Minnesota wants.

In fairness, three games are small enough of a sample size. The Gophers have struggled over the past three years against Duluth, which both Kloos and Fasching noted over the weekend as the losing streak hit six. Minnesota did have more chances in the slot against Vermont with Ramsey, Novak and Kloos each having opportunities close by.

That makes this weekend's series against Northeastern, who out-shot the Gophers 40-27 in a 3-2 win last season in Boston, a more telling sign. If the struggle to create and get opportunities for high-percentage chances continues against a Huskies team that felt the other end of Corsi's cruel wrath last weekend - Bentley swept NU despite being out-shot 51-11 and 41-27 - we will know more about Minnesota. If the floodgates open, then we'll know more too. This weekend is about how and where the home team is able to score, if Minnesota can hang on attempt for attempt with a Northeastern team that has struggled to score goals but isn't above out-shooting its opponent.

The Gophers are already reaching a point where it cannot afford too many more non-conference hiccups. Between the 0-3 start and a Big Ten conference that is 2-14-3 against non-Atlantic hockey schools, the Pairwise rankings that make up the NCAA Tournament field is already on the mind in mid-October.

"I wouldn't call it a moral win (playing the last 40 minutes well), but at this point with how the Pairwise works we don't have any more time for moral wins," said Kloos on Saturday.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --