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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.