Before Minnesota’s opening game at North Dakota two weeks ago, a bright pink sign reading “[Alex] Kangas is ridiculous,” stood out in the crowd at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Apparently that particular Sioux fan wasn’t aware that the senior goaltender was 300 miles away in Minneapolis, recovering from season-ending surgery on a torn labrum that effectively ended his career at Minnesota.
So imagine his surprise when Kent Patterson, who played in just 15 games before this season, took the net for the Gophers, and his subsequent dismay when Patterson stopped 37 shots on the way to a 3-2 victory over the No. 2 Sioux.
What may be even more surprising? He’s quieted a No. 2 before.
In mid-December against in-state rival and then-No.2 Minnesota-Duluth, Patterson had 37 saves in a 3-2 victory, then 41 two nights later to preserve a 2-2 tie. His consistent play has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches alike.
“He’s already proven that he can be a starting goalie for us,” Nico Sacchetti said after that Jan. 14 victory in North Dakota. “Tonight was just another night he was in net.”
It was and it wasn’t. If playing goalie is like walking a tightrope, Patterson’s safety net has essentially been yanked from under him. Backup duties now fall to junior Jake Kremer, who has never made a regular season appearance for the Gophers, and Alex Fons, who left the North American Hockey League and joined the Gophers just last week.
But even with Kangas’ season-ending injury and head coach Don Lucia’s declaration that Patterson will start every game if he is physically able, Patterson isn’t feeling the pressure.
“I don’t think there’s ever been that much pressure from the coaches,” Patterson said. “They’re just telling me, ‘Go out there, have some fun.’”
He seems to be. Patterson’s save percentage against conference opponents (.926) is second in the WCHA, and his 7-2-2 conference record is good enough for third.
Plus, Lucia never expected the go-to role to bother Patterson.
“I don’t know any goalie that doesn’t want to play every night,” Lucia said.
Although Patterson is relishing the opportunity to play every night, he can sense Kangas’ disappointment. The two live together with Kremer, and Patterson has been helping Kangas around the house.
It was an abrupt end to Kangas’ sometimes-brilliant career, one that included a record-setting freshman year. Now it’s up to Patterson to carry the torch.
“Looking at [Kangas’] career, it’s something you want to replicate,” Patterson said.
Patterson may have the chance to make a name for himself among the conference’s elite thanks to his mental toughness, a quality a number of his teammates bring up when talking about him.
“He’s always had it,” defenseman Kevin Wehrs, who played with Patterson for two years in Cedar Rapids in the United States Hockey League. “He’s got an opportunity to show it this year, and he’s running with it.”
Wehrs admitted that he and Patterson, along with fellow former Cedar Rapids teammate Jacob Cepis “probably give each other [more] grief than anyone on the team.”
So did Wehrs give Patterson any grief when Patterson didn’t join in a benches-clearing brawl incited by a vicious hit that sent Wehrs’ head into the North Dakota boards?
“No,” Wehrs said with a laugh. Then he turned serious: “We need him.”
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