Last week, the Gophers rebounded from three straight losses to drop NDSU 4-0, but things won’t exactly get any easier as they kickoff the conference schedule this weekend. Now that we have a decent sample size, let’s take a deeper look at Minnesota’s squad as they head into the gauntlet of Big Ten play.
First, both the eye test and the stats show that the Gophers are shooting less than they did a year ago. Over the course of last season, they averaged nearly 16 shots per game. This year, that’s dropped to just shy of 12. For a team like Minnesota, the problem isn’t necessarily just that fewer shots mean fewer chances to score. It’s also that the opposing defense doesn’t feel the need to pressure the player with the ball quite as much, because Gophers have been more hesitant to shoot it even when they’re deep in the opposing box. When defends lay back a bit, that clogs the passing lanes and makes it harder for players off the ball to find space with an off-ball run.
That’s contributed to players like April Bockin (who led the country in assists for portions of last season) to hold on to the ball a bit longer. Combined with the hesitancy of some younger players like Patricia Ward to pull the trigger, this has led and already team-focused, pass-first lineup to become almost paralized in the final third. It would be great to see Molly Fiedler and Emily Heslin fire from distance. With a few matches under their belt to build some chemistry, I wouldn’t be surprised if shots start flying a bit more. Who knows? Maybe Makenzie Langdok’s shot from distance against NDSU that put the Gophers on top may in and of itself spur some long distance howlers* (‘Howler’ is a positive term in this space. #PositiveHowler)
There are times when the lack of precision and passing in the final third is made up for with quality chances off the Gophers’ press. But to this point - as might be expected - the press has been inconsistent. The coaching staff was quick to remind the team after a hard fought game against Stanford that when the press is on - as it was that day - they can truly compete and outplay anyone.
The lack of a consistent press and the mix of so many new faces on the back line has led to some quality for opposing offenses. While the Gopher defense suffocated opponents into low quality chances (33.3 percent shots on goal for opponents in 2017), they’ve let a few more clean chances make it to the keeper so far this year (41.7 percent).
Maddie Nielsen has performed pretty well, considering the circumstances (75 percent save percentage vs Kailee Sharp’s 70 percent last year) but there are still plenty of instances where a simple mistake leads to goal that really could have (or should have) saved. Still, Nielsen only just eclipsed ten starts for her career and she has made some nice saves. Going through those moments in the non-conference slate might be a bit of a silver lining. Now it’s on the backline and Nielsen to tighten things up.
For all the talk about how they look on the field, where Minnesota lands in the postseason will largely depend on the numbers (and random people sitting in a room selecting teams, but we can't control them). Last year, they were dangerous. They scored well. They defended well. And they ended up JUST outside of the field for the national tournament.
As they head into Big Ten play, the Gophers look like they’re in decent shape. The preseason poll, current standings, and RPI standings should - combined - show you how hard it is to judge teams part-way through the season. Michigan State has loaded up wins against “cupcakes” so the standings inflate their chances. Purdue was picked in the lower half of the preseason poll but their early results show they may be for real. And with games against Illinois and Northwestern this weekend to finish out their 7 game home stand, Minnesota may in a position to solidify themselves as contenders if they can get some results.
Friday, September 14th at 6PM – Home vs Illinois (Big Ten Plus)
Sunday, September 16th at 1PM – Home vs Northwestern (Big Ten Plus)
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