Cheap-shot controversy, and a storied program rebounds

This week I’m going to try something different. I’ll address a topic in the NHL and then a topic in college hockey. Respectively: a cheap shot and the rise of a powerhouse.

Saturday night in Boston, Bruins winger Milan Lucic plowed into Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller and sent him flying, knocking Miller out indefinitely with a concussion. On Monday the NHL announced that Lucic would not receive any disciplinary action, its decision based on a lack of intent on Lucic’s part.

Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff was outraged by the hit saying that if Lucic wasn’t suspended that it would be “fair game on goaltenders.”

Just hours after the ruling, Ruff was proven prophetic as his backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth was run over by Montreal Canadiens forward Erik Cole.

After seeing the video numerous times, I can’t agree with the decision. It wasn’t a legal play – goalies aren’t fair game when they are clearing the puck – and the contact was really unnecessary. Lucic got a penalty for it, but it should have at least been a double-minor. Second, at no time does it appear that Lucic made any effort to stop or to avoid Miller. He even appears to raise his arms right before he hits Miller to make sure he makes contact with his head. As a result, Miller’s helmet flew off and he wound up with a concussion that could sideline him for who-knows-how-long.

By not suspending Lucic, the league sends a message to all goaltenders that nothing will be done to protect them. Don’t be surprised if more incidents like this happen soon.

On a side note, I also disagree with Boston’s GM Peter Chiarelli, who praised Lucic for “taking the high road” and called Miller’s comments “unfortunate,” after Miller used some expletives to describe Lucic when talking to reporters. If Lucic really wanted to take the high road, he wouldn’t have nailed Miller like a linebacker and would have instead tried to avoid the hit. As for the unfortunate comments, Peter, put yourself in Miller’s skates. Some guy delivers a cheap shot to you and gives you a concussion. Wouldn’t you be a tad upset with that guy and maybe think a little less of him afterward?

Now I’ll move on to Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Golden Gophers are showing their first signs of life in more than four years. Growing up in the Minneapolis area, talk of Minnesota’s five national championships was constant. The Gophers routinely finished in the top half of the WCHA and made the NCAA tournament every year. This trend continued into my college years.

The last four years, however, have been a real downer for fans of the maroon and gold. Minnesota has struggled in all areas of the game since the 2007-08 season. That year, if it wasn’t for a valiant effort at the WCHA Final Five, they would have missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in years. They were subsequently destroyed by eventual national champion Boston College and the Gopher mystique, it seemed, died that night.

Minnesota missed the tournament in the three seasons since and has missed the Final Five – which is played in their own backyard, the Xcel Energy Center – the past two. Many wondered if this season would be the last for head coach Don Lucia, who won back-to-back national titles in 2002 and ‘03. Instead Lucia’s contract was extended and, with the way his team is playing so far, it looks as if he might have saved his job for quite a while.

Minnesota (10-2 overall, 7-1 WCHA) has been ranked No. 1 in the nation the past two weeks, and deservedly so. They swept defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth on the road and swept last year’s WCHA champion, North Dakota, at home. Their only losses came from a one-goal loss to Vermont and a loss last weekend at Wisconsin. Even after the Wisconsin loss, the Gophers bounced back with three goals in the third period the following night to forge a series split.

Two of the key players stepping up for the Gophers are senior goalie Kent Patterson and two underclassmen, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. So far, Patterson has 1.66 GAA, a .935 save percentage and five shutouts. Bjugstad is currently leading the Gophers in goals with nine while Rau is second on the team with eight.

The Gophers’ schedule offers no real challenge until after the holiday break, when they face Notre Dame at home and head to Grand Forks to take on North Dakota. It will be pivotal for the Gophers to get as many wins as they can during this time; the road to the NCAA tournament will get a lot more difficult the second half of the season.

So is Minnesota finally back on track? For now, yes. The Gophers possess some talented scorers and Patterson is proving quite capable inside the pipes considering he was primarily a backup for the first three years of his career.

It’s still too soon for Gopher fans to book their flights to Tampa for this year’s Frozen Four. Minnesota has yet to be tested week in and week out, and history has not been kind: The past few years, the Gophers have become notorious for hitting the skids after New Year’s. Minnesota has North Dakota, Denver, and Nebraska-Omaha on the road in the second half (as well as a tough series at home against Colorado College), so there’s no guarantee that trend won’t continue.

At least for the moment, the team seems to be on the right track. For a program with Minnesota’s history, it’s refreshing to see one of the better teams Lucia has put together in quite a while.

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