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Michigan also fighting injuries and illness in advance of Gopher series

All of Michigan's individual talent has not kept them immune to the injury bug, or to COVID, in advance of their series versus the Gophers in Minneapolis. Also: Gophers women blessed in goal, and Motzko's memories of Hockey Day are good ones.

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Minnesota Gophers forward Ben Meyers battles for a loose puck with Michigan's Kent Johnson (13) during a 5-1 win over the Wolverines on Dec. 3, 2021 at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Contributed / Jonathan Knight
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MINNEAPOLIS – The thing about the pandemic that has affected life, and college hockey, over the past 22 months or so, is that it has hit everyone on some level. While the Minnesota Gophers played versus Alaska last weekend with five regulars out of their lineup due to a combination of positive test results and more traditional on-ice injuries, their upcoming opponent has its own tale to tell.

Michigan, which boasts four of the top-five picks from last summer’s NHL Draft in its lineup, made the NCAA tournament last season and traveled to Fargo for a first-round showdown versus Minnesota Duluth, but never got to play, after enough Wolverines tested positive for the virus that they were forced to withdraw.

Last month, Michigan only played one of two games they were scheduled to play in the Great Lakes Invitational after medical officials at the school determined it would be unsafe for the Wolverines to play both games. Thus, they skated to a 0-0 tie with Michigan Tech, but did not play Western Michigan the next night – a move that has been widely criticized in the college hockey world.

In advance of the trip to Minneapolis this weekend, Michigan coach Mel Pearson – who played high school hockey at Edina – said that like most teams in college hockey, his squad is not exactly at full strength by this point in the season.

“The Ohio State series was when most of our problems really crept up. We had some COVID there and we had two guys with season-ending injuries, so this past weekend was as close as we’ve been to a whole group together,” Pearson said. “We’re I think as healthy as we can be at this point. But I know the NHL (tracks) man-games lost and I think we’d lead the country in that.”

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Like the Gophers, who will lose three players to the Olympics next month, the Wolverines will be losing key players to both Team USA and Team Canada for the games in Beijing. Pearson said there is pressure to do well and bank Big Ten standings points in games like those this weekend, with close to a full squad available.

“There’s a little more sense of urgency, especially given this weekend’s games with Minnesota. They’re picked to finish first in the Big Ten and we had a great series with them earlier in the year,” he said. “I definitely think there’s some urgency regardless because we are playing them, knowing we’re both missing players, I think it puts a little bit more importance on this weekend, trying to get as many points as we can, no doubt about it.”

The Gophers split a series with Michigan in Ann Arbor before the holiday break, winning 5-1 on Friday and losing 6-2 on Saturday. Michigan has won its past four in a row, and took over first place in the conference last weekend, while the Gophers were playing a nonconference series.

Gophers women blessed in goal

The bad news last weekend for the Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey team was an extremely rare loss to Minnesota State Mankato on Saturday, which snapped a string of 53 consecutive wins over the Mavericks. The good news comes between the pipes, where coach Brad Frost has one of the best problems imaginable – too many good goalies.

2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship
Team USA's Skylar Vetter celebrates a win against Canada in the gold medal game at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship on Jan. 2, 2020 in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images

In a 7-2 win over the Mavericks last Friday, freshman Skylar Vetter turned aside 29 of the 31 shots she faced and was named the WCHA’s rookie of the week for the second week in a row as a result.

Graduate student Lauren Bench has started 11 of the Gophers’ 24 games so far, and has a 6-3-1 record. Makayla Pahl, a junior, has six starts and a 6-1 record. Vetter, who played boys’ high school hockey at Lakeville North, has now made seven starts and has a 5-2 record. Frost looks at all three of them equally headed into this weekend’s showdown with top-ranked Wisconsin at Ridder Arena.

“We’ve got three number ones is how we feel, and I know that’s a frustrating thing for them, because they all think they’re the best and I want them to all think they’re the best,” Frost said. “We continue to kind of go with the hot hand and they’ve all gotten opportunities and we have confidence in all of them.”

Good Hockey Day memories for Motzko

Hockey Day Minnesota came to St. Cloud in 2018, which was Gophers’ coach Bob Motzko’s final season as the head coach at St. Cloud State. The outdoor rink was set up next to Lake George, near downtown St. Cloud, and featured a Huskies alumni game and other events.

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While the Gophers will not play a role in the 2022 event in Mankato, Motzko has fond Hockey Day memories and is a big fan of the event.

READ MORE MINNESOTA GOPHERS COVERAGE:
In head coach P.J. Fleck’s six recruiting classes since taking over the program in 2017, the U has signed an average of 3.6 scholarship players from Minnesota, ranging from a high of five in 2017 to a low of two in 2021

“I think it’s awesome for the community that hosts it and I saw that first-hand in St. Cloud. We’ve watched it from afar and you’d see the one up in Baudette or Stillwater and see what was going on,” Motzko said. “To be a part of it in St. Cloud was really cool for the community and I’m sure Mankato is going to do a bang-up job. It’s a day that’s got great meaning in our state now, for celebrating our sport.”

Michigan weekend details

Friday night’s game versus Michigan is an 8 p.m. CT start and will be televised by ESPNU with John Buccigross and Sean Richlin on the call. Saturday’s rematch is a 6:30 p.m. start, televised by Big Ten Network, with Fred Pletsch and Chris Vosters in the broadcast booth. On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco describing the action. Postgame interviews with coach Motzko and Gophers players can be seen live, roughly 10 minutes after the final horn at The Rink Live’s Facebook page.

While Michigan has a long history of talented Minnesotans on their teams, including several stars from the Iron Range who fueled the Wolverines’ dynasty of the 1950s, Michiganders on the Gopher roster have been a rarity. Goalie Owen Bartoszkiewicz, who joined the Gophers last week and hails from the Detroit suburb of Northville, is just the third Michigan native to skate in the Gophers program. Junior defenseman Matt Staudacher from Fenton, Mich., was second on that list, and forward Brent Gates Jr., from Grand Rapids, Mich., was the first. He played for the Gophers from 2015-19.

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.
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