After an exciting year of Gopher hockey the season ended on a somewhat sour note after the Gophers lost 3-2 to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Gophers were good enough to earn a #4 overall seed and a #1 seed in their regional but didn’t have enough in the tank to make it to the frozen four. Was this a matter of poor play, a poor process, coaching, injuries or bad luck? Maybe a combination of the above?
For the most part you all watched the game and remember how it unfolded so I won’t spend too much time recapping what happened. The Gophers were absolutely buzzing creating a ton of chances for the better part of the first 2 periods but just couldn’t get the additional goals needed to really pull away after taking a 2-0 lead. Eventually the Irish tied it late in the 2nd period and got the lead midway through the 3rd which would end up being the game winning goal. The goal here is to take a deeper dive into the numbers at both a team and individual level and see if our eye test mostly matches what the data shows. First we’ll start with the team metrics.
For those who don’t know CF% stands for corsi for percentage, it’s basically a measure of who generated what share of all shot attempts. FF% stands for Fenwick For percentage and it excludes blocks shots. By either metric the Gophers couldn’t have done much better and carrying these types of percentages on the year would likely make you one of the more dominant teams in the NCAA. For frame of reference, no NHL team has achieved a 60 CF% over the last decade (which is as far as the stat goes back on Corsica). The best a team has ever done in that span was the 2007-08 Red Wings who ended up winning the cup that year and carried a CF% of 58.7%. In terms of out-chancing ND at 5 on 5, the Gophers definitely did that over the entirety of this game.
Part of the problem though was the third period. They did get some good chances in the third such as the oppurtunity where Kloos was all alone in front of Peterson with a couple minutes left but just couldn’t find enough time or space to bury it. But for the most part you can see that the percentage of controlled entries was significantly down from the earlier periods for the Gophers. This also happened to correlate with them dumping the puck in more often during the 3rd, they had 10 dump-ins vs 6 in the first period and 7 in the 2nd. Only 3 of these dump ins for all 3 periods were actually recovered by the Gophers (there were some instances where ND turned the puck over when attempting to exit the zone). This isn’t super shocking because the Gophers aren’t exactly a big team who are going to have a ton of success grinding it out along the boards against other teams. ND on the other hand improved in terms of entries as the game went on.
Looking at what happened at an individual level also confirms some of the stuff that was discussed on GPL.
Above are the zone entries and controlled entry rates for each player on both teams. I’m sure everyone noticed Anders Bjork had a hell of a game and for my money Justin Kloos was just as good even if he and his linemates didn’t produce any points at 5 on 5. Kloos’s numbers above don’t do a good enough job of reflecting how impressive his contributions in this area were because he does such a great job of opening up space with his speed and dishing the puck to his linemates in open space allowing them to carry the puck into the zone cleanly.
Letierri did a solid job driving his line and generating chances and it might’ve been interesting to see what he could do if a better finisher like Gates was on his line instead of Cammaratta. That isn’t a knock on Cammy, he held his own in terms of zone entries and controlled play in the offensive end but he isn’t known for his shooting ability. Lucia tried to maintain a balanced approach with his lines and it’s hard to fault him too much seeing how well it worked on the season as a whole.
Another thing that’s glaringly obvious from the Gophers’ entry data, this team really lacked a dynamic defenseman who excels at skating the puck and entering the zone cleanly. For the most part it’s not expected that all defensemen are going to be good at this but having a guy like Mike Reilly or Nate Schmidt makes a huge difference in what a line is capable of in all 3 zones. Even without a guy like him though you’d think they could figure out a way to do better than 0 controlled entries over an entire game.
As for Notre Dame, who admittedly I’m not as familiar with, it became very clear early on that Bjork came to play and is an impressive player. That kinda goes without saying. Looking at the data I found it interesting to see that their third line (at least as it was listed on their line chart) generated more consistent offense than their second line during this game. They not only got more controlled entries they also generated more shot attempts.
Onto the zone exit data:
While Kloos’s zone entry data probably wasn’t as impressive as he actually was in that area of the game, this should give a clearer picture as to how important he is to the team. The entire game he was absolutely flying out of his own zone and through the neutral zone backing up the opposition whenever he had the puck. He easily evaded their forecheck with his speed and as such it created quite a few odd man rush opportunities in the other direction. His linemates did a solid job as well and to anyone who watched the game this probably isn’t all that shocking but this helps give a clearer picture of how good that line was. Even though the result didn’t end in their favor they can all definitely hold their heads high after this effort.
Some other guys who had a solid game in terms of exits were Sadek and Glover (the latter of whom’s weren’t quite as difficult judging by the pressure). These two will be very key next year now that we’ve learned that Collins is leaving to go pro, not to mention the loss of Bischoff. Glover had a really nice stretch pass late in the game that sprung Letierri behind the defense for a 2 on 1 but they just couldn’t get the tying goal. Zuhlsdorf did a lot of the heavy lifting on his line and fared pretty well at 50% controlled. He’s another player who will be interesting to watch next year and see if he can take the next step in becoming more dynamic and fulfilling that particular role. And Bischoff had a solid game generating a good percentage of clean breakouts despite being pressured on most of them. One guy who sticks out like a sore thumb in the stats above is Cammaratta. I went back and watched his exits out of curiousity and while a few of them were pressure situations where he didn’t have a decent outlet, on at least 3 of them he had options and just flubbed the pass. Not his best game.
Notre Dame wasn’t quite as good at exiting the zone cleanly but once again, Bjork really excelled in this area (what else is new) as he was clearly the driver of that line. The 2nd line once again wasn’t quite as impressive as the 3rd. I find it interesting to see that the Gophers put a ton of pressure on their top D pairing but not quite as much on the 2nd pair who seemed to fare better in terms of exiting the zone cleanly. I’d be curious to know how Jackson was deploying the D pairings in terms of zone starts and which forward groups he paired them with because that could potentially have made a difference in terms of these stats. If they were able to get the puck to Bjork on a breakout that would definitely make their exit stats look much better.
So despite the fact that the Gophers dominated play for the majority of the game, created more chances, and were a bit cleaner in terms of what they did with the puck, why did they end up losing this game 3-2? After all, Notre Dame is playing in the Frozen Four as I write this. One key difference was that Notre Dame has one of the best goalies in the NCAA who played 39 games this year sporting a save percent of .929. Only one goalie played as many games and had a better save percentage and that was Bemidji’s goalie, who probably doesn’t face the quality of competition that Cal Peterson did in the Hockey East conference. For frame of reference Adam Wilcox had a save percentage of .932 the year they went to the national championship. Goalies are a great way to even things up when your team either isn’t playing well or just isn’t quite as deep or skilled as another team on a given day. Hockey is a very low scoring game for the most part these days and games are won on the thinnest of margins. Having a 60-40 shot advantage should win you most games but when the difference in save percent is .939 to .895 the Gophers would’ve theoretically needed another 15 shots on net and not conceded anymore than they did. Even against Mercyhurst that would be asking a lot. That’s not to say Eric Schierhorn played badly for the Gophers, he made a bunch of good saves as well, but he just wasn’t as spectacular as Peterson was and has been a bit more average throughout his career at the U of M. People hate the “hot goalie excuse” but this wasn’t a case of the Gophers making an average goalie look like Hasek, Peterson is one of the elite NCAA goalies and he played outstanding in this one. Guys like Kloos, Sheehy, and Pitlick couldn’t bury one more of IDK how many great opportunities. In some ways it was just kind of unlucky.
Now was a hot goalie the only thing that prevented the Gophers from winning this one? I think one area the Gophers could’ve improved on and have complete control over is how they change lines when a defensive pair exits the ice. Everyone who watched the game remembers how Peterson threw the puck up ice for Notre Dame’s first goal of the game (not only was he outstanding at playing his position, he made a great offensive play as well). The Glover/Johnson pair had just been on the ice along with the 3rd line for a long shift in which they got pinned in their zone for an extended period of time. They were obviously gassed but the problem was that everyone except Johnson got off the ice at the exact same time on the long 2nd period change (ie the player benches are now further away from the D zone). If one of the forwards just stays on the ice and forechecks the goalie it’s significantly less likely that Peterson can get the puck all the way up the ice to the other blue line for a 2 on 1. This wasn’t the only instance where there was a bad line change involving Glover. Midway through the third Glover and Zuhlsdorf tried to exit the ice as Cammaratta was chipping away at a puck near the boards in the neutral zone but never had full control. Dello, a 3rd pairing Dman for the Irish made a nice pass to spring Ogelvie for a breakaway.
How this type of thing happens twice in an NCAA regional where your entire season is on the line is beyond me. You can definitely blame Glover, the right defenseman, for going all the way across the ice to make a change when his teammate doesn’t even have control of the puck. But at the same time when this type of thing happens twice in a potentially season ending game do the coaches not take some blame for this? Luckily Schierhorn came up with a huge save on the breakaway above but these kinds of ridiculous mistakes can’t happen in this type of setting vs good teams.
So what do we take away from this game? Like I said above, the modern era of hockey is a low scoring affair and if you’re playing against an elite goalie in a one and done format you better hope that your’s is playing his A+ game as well and that your team isn’t making silly mistakes. Unfortunately neither was case and the Gophers had another disappointing end to an otherwise successful year. Having depth and generating chances is obviously good thing but it isn’t a prophecy that guarantees a victory. Unfortunately the Gophers learned that the hard way in this one.
* All stats recorded at 5 on 5 play