ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Gophers freshmen emerge at the right time to fuel second-half surge and Boston trip

When it appeared the sky was falling on the Minnesota Gophers in January, their coach stayed calm, installed a new goalie and got vital contributions from a talented group of rookies, earning the program's first Frozen Four trip since 2014.

Notre Dame vs Minnesota
Minnesota goaltender Justen Close turned aside a Notre Dame shot in the second period of a 5-1 Gophers win over the Irish on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2022 at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind.
Brad Rempel / University of Minnesota Athletics
We are part of The Trust Project.

BOSTON – Bob Motzko’s audience for his weekly media availability at 3M Arena at Mariucci usually features a few student journalists, a few newspaper/online folks, a few bloggers and the team’s radio voices. On occasion a TV camera or two will show up.

And then there was the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 11, when the Minnesota Gophers coach found himself navigating a forest of TV tripods, columnists and myriad other members of the Twin Cities press just to get to the podium.

Follow the 2022 NCAA men's hockey tournament coverage on The Rink Live for previews, recaps, photos, information and more as the teams play for a national championship in Boston.

Two days earlier, star goalie Jack LaFontaine had abruptly signed a pro contract and left college hockey. COVID tests administered after a sweep at Michigan State showed positive results for four players and a staff member. About that time it became clear that three Gophers – forwards Matthew Knies and Ben Meyers, and defenseman Brock Faber – would likely miss six games when they traveled to the Olympics.

A season filled with so much promise that began with the Gophers picked to win the Big Ten title, was to the eyes of the outsiders, coming unglued quickly. But Motzko wore a big smile, joking that he had been lonely with just the normal handful of media members to that point in the season, and making it clear that the sky was not necessarily falling in Gopherland.

“We’ll know in March and April how the history is going to play out,” Motzko said then, treating the unexpected player transactions no different than if LaFontaine had been lost for the season due to injury.

ADVERTISEMENT

The March history is in the books, and despite all the perception of midseason turmoil, this has been the most successful of Motzko’s four years as the program’s head coach. The Gophers rattled off nine wins in a row and claimed the Big Ten title. After a loss to Michigan in the conference tournament title game, they went to the Worcester Regional and won a pair to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014. And they did it all without panicking.

_L6A3352
Minnesota Gophers forward Aaron Huglen (7) takes the puck past Michigan State forward Jesse Tucker (16) during the first period Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Jason Wachter / The Rink Live
JASON WACHTER/www.jasonwachter.com

While some note that Justen Close’s numbers since taking over in goal are better than those posted by LaFontaine pre-departure, Motzko also points to the emergence of the team’s freshmen forwards as they got acclimated to the pace of college hockey as a major factor in the second-half success.

READ MORE MINNESOTA GOPHERS AND FROZEN FOUR COVERAGE:
But adding UCLA and USC is smart for a conference trying to sustain its current pace of growth
Roughly 1,000 memberships will go on sale in July.
Steveson has an 85-2 career record in college, including a current 52-matches winning streak.
Pro
The 25-year-old Fiala is fresh off the best season of his career in which he scored 33 goals, 52 assists, and 85 points.
Family, teammates and coaches gathered at the U to celebrate the former running back’s life
Transfer power forward missed all of last season after injuring his left knee
Coach P.J. Fleck gave Brown his first Power 5 conference offer last weekend
The 2021 first-round draft pick played 12 games and started just four as a rookie, finishing with 515 yards on 46 receptions and one touchdown.
The 72-year-old retired coach and broadcaster dealt with the initial shock of the 38-year-old’s death in Texas
Barber, who attended Wayzata High School, played for the Gophers from 2001-04. He is fifth all-time on Minnesota’s career rushing list with 3,094 yards
Darius Taylor and Drew Viotta will be joining the team for 2023.
Pro
The NCAA said this week conferences can now select the two teams for their championship game in any way they see fit

“It took a little time for that to come together. I think in February our freshmen had 16 goals, and last weekend (at the Worcester Regional) of our seven goals, freshmen had four of them,” Motzko said in advance of the team leaving for Boston. “We needed that young group to materialize offensively for us, because they’re awfully talented. In the second half they’ve really hit their mark as a group.”

On the day before their semifinal meeting with Minnesota State Mankato, Motzko will stand before a microphone and meet with the assembled national college hockey media at the rink in Boston and talk about his team’s mission to beat the Mavericks, then beat either Michigan or Denver, and claim the program’s sixth NCAA title. It would be the Gophers’ first since they won back-to-back crowns in 2002 and 2003, when Motzko was an assistant coach under Don Lucia.

One expects that the dozens of reporters, TV cameras and clicking shutters there, once again, will bring a smile to the coach’s face.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
What to read next