Gophers look to roster shuffle in show victory over Tommies
While the Gophers’ show on Sunday against Division I debutant St. Thomas was not an official 5-2 victory, it still helped the Gophers in several crucial ways heading into the relentless end of the season.
The Tommies 1-19, who lost to their opponents by a combined score of 99-31 in their first season at the top of men’s college hockey, put the Gophers on their heels early, taking the lead 11 seconds after the start of the match before equalizing the score at 2-2 less than a minute after the start of the second. But the Gophers – who hadn’t played since Dec. 4 – found production from unexpected sources to take control in the second half of the contest.
They’ll essentially have to do exactly that on a larger scale over the next two months leading up to the playoffs, as they hope to improve from last year’s NCAA quarterfinals.
Two additional skaters, junior Colin Schmidt and senior Matt Denman, both scored goals Sunday at the sold-out 2,400-seat Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul in the Gophers-Tommies’ first meeting. . Junior Jaxon Nelson also scored a goal after a bit of a drought during the first part of the season. And substitute goalie Justen Close earned a few minutes instead of starter Jack LaFontaine.
Coach Bob Motzko has not played defenseman Brock Faber or forwards Matthew Knies and Chaz Lucius, who have all recently returned from the Junior World Championship cut short due to COVID-19 issues. While they should all be available when the No.11 Gophers take on Michigan State this coming weekend, the Gophers might not be at full strength for long.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the NHL has decided not to send players to the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. This means Motzko is looking into his crystal ball and getting ready for his roster to be quite different very soon.
“It’s going to affect us. I don’t know how much,” Motzko said. “But if one of our guys has the opportunity at this point to [their] life… we are going to open the door to them. And I told USA Hockey that our list is wide open for them. Take what they have to take and we’ll live with it. “
BOXSCORE: Gophers 5, Saint Thomas 2
Motzko has said he expects more clarity this week on which of his players could go. And depending on who gets the call, the fact that players like Schmidt, Denman, Nelson and Close develop some confidence on Sunday could pay off when the team needs deep players to take on more responsibility.
“We all prepare in exactly the same way: just expect it to happen, and whether it happens or not, it doesn’t matter,” Schmidt said. “… I would love to see a few of our guys go and represent our country. So that would be great. And absolutely, we would be ready to step in and help the team until they come back.”
The Gophers (10-8 overall) are tied at three for second in the Big Ten, sitting at 6-4 with Ohio State and Notre Dame. Michigan is just ahead with a 7-5 record. Michigan State is also in the game at 5-5.
The Gophers have another exposure on Monday against the U.S. Under-18 team, and there will be a brief non-conference break Jan. 14-15 against Alaska, a rescheduled early-season series due to COVID concerns. -19 within the Nanooks. But then it’s all of the Big Ten through February, including Michigan’s No.3 on Jan. 21-22, Notre Dame’s No.10 on Jan. 28-29, and No. 17 of the Ohio State February 11-12.
“We got out of the rink a bit and came home and tried to recharge the batteries, and since we got back to campus we’ve been skating hard,” said junior Ben Meyers. “It’s a bit the same as preparing for the start of the season. I feel like we’ve rested and are ready to do a good job here.”
Motzko said that despite the staff absences the Olympics could present, he feels good about how his team is entering this crucial segment of the year. Everyone is in good health, which means there is stiff competition for playing time at each position. And the young players have all returned from the break with a new mindset to approach these upcoming games almost like a whole new season.
“You kind of clean up the cobwebs, and you come back and you play hockey,” Motzko said. “I think there are good things to come for us.”