Fresh off a road sweep of defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth, the Gophers will host Vermont this weekend at Mariucci Arena looking to build on their early season success.
No. 8 Minnesota (4-0-0, 2-0-0 WCHA) is off to its best start since the 2001-02 season, but it has never faced the Catamounts.
“I know that last year [Vermont] didn’t have the year they wanted, but the two previous years they were NCAA tournament teams and a Frozen Four team. Their goaltender that’s playing took them to the Frozen Four,” head coach Don Lucia said.
“I know they were picked to be in the middle of the Hockey East [conference] and I know we were picked to be in the middle of the WCHA so it should be a great matchup.”
Minnesota has exceeded expectations so far in 2011, defeating then-No. 9 UMD 5-4 twice Oct. 14-15.
Vermont has yet to play a game.
The Catamounts were 8-20-8 overall and 6-14-7 in the Hockey East last season, but return four of their top five point scorers from last season.
Vermont averaged only 2.28 goals per game last season in contrast to UMD, which averaged 3.40 goals per game.
While Gophers goaltender Kent Patterson may face fewer opposing scoring opportunities this weekend than he did against UMD, he will not get a break.
“Until [Patterson] needs a break he won’t get one,” Lucia said. “He is our goalie and whether he plays every game, or most of the games, he’s probably going to be playing pretty much every night.
“He’s earned that right, and if you ask Kent, he wants to play every night.”
Patterson made a career-high 46 saves in both of the team’s wins over UMD.
Minnesota will also look to exploit Vermont’s penalty kill unit, which allowed 35 power play goals last season.
The Gophers possess the No. 1 power play in the nation through four games. They have converted on 39 percent of their opportunities with the man advantage.
“It’s still early, but they’ve done a nice job,” Lucia. “We have the makings of what can be a good power play but we also know they’re streaking.
“We’re off to a good start. Are we creating chances? That’s the big thing I want to see out of our power play.”
Lucia said he is most impressed with the team’s ability to kill penalties thus far.
“It was a real struggle for us last year, but now some of the guys we counted on to kill [penalties] last year have that year of experience,” Lucia said. “They’ve done a better job of it so far.”
Minnesota killed only 77 percent of opposing power plays last season, but is doing so at a 90 percent rate this season.
The Gophers have scored a goal in every period this season and will look to continue that streak this weekend.
“I don’t know if it’s a special group or anything, I just think we have some depth,” Minnesota leading scorer Erik Haula said. “We have some guys that can score … and everyone is just doing their job right now and that’s what happens when everything is clicking, I guess.”
Haula is tied for the top scorer in the nation with 9 points.
Even with the early success, Lucia said the team cannot be complacent at this point in the season.
“We’re only a couple weeks in,” Lucia said. “As great as it’s been, we have an awful lot of work to do as a team and areas we have to improve upon.
“That is the goal this weekend — to continue to improve on areas that we didn’t feel like we performed where we could have last weekend.”
The Gophers are 80-47-7 against Hockey East opponents all-time and the Catamounts are the only team from the conference they have never faced.