Despite 6-3 loss to BU in Regional Final, Gophers Leadership core leaves program in great hands

March 30th, 2024: It stings. The Gophers season has come to an end but the leadership core has left a great culture in place that could and will take this team far for years. 

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Photo by Bjorn Franke. 11/18/2023.

SIOUX FALLS – A few Gophers underclassmen sat in their stalls after the game in defeat. They were upset because they had lost in the Regional final to end their season but also because it was the last time they will have played with three fifth-year players and possibly a few seniors.

For the three fifth year seniors, this one is a heartbreaker. For everyone involved, this one sucks. But for Jaxon Nelson, Bryce Brodzinski, and Justen Close, their time as a Gopher player has now officially ended.

The Nelson story continued to grow after he got the Gophers on the board first against Boston University. As Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said after Nelson scored two goals in the Omaha game to advance the Gophers to the Regional Final, “He should get an NHL deal the way he’s been playing these last two months. 

It was pretty fitting for Nelson to have gotten the Gophers on the board first. Two days ago he scored the game tying goal in the third period and the game-winning goal not long after to beat Omaha.

On his birthday and with his hometown just about 30 minutes east from the Denny Sanford Premier Center, Nelson gave the Gophers an early lead in the first period from yet again, another Brodzinski set-up. About ten minutes later, Brodzinski scored off a nice pass by Rhett Pitlick to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead with about two minutes left in the first period. 

But Quinn Hutson scored just 14 seconds later. The play happened after a neutral zone faceoff loss by the Gophers. Hutson entered the zone and chipped it past Carl Fish. A failed clearance by the Gophers then led to Hutson with the puck again. The sophomore forward regained the puck and skated right towards the goal before throwing the puck out in front of the net. After deflecting off Fish’s stick, the puck changed direction ever so slightly and rolled under the pads of Close. 

A late goal by the Terriers was what they needed. They came out hard to start the second period and picked up two goals in about four minutes to give the Terriers their first lead of the game on three straight goals. 

Minnesota eventually trapped BU in their zone for over a minute and scored after a nice centering pass to the front of the net off the stick of Brody Lamb. Aaron Huglen tied the game at 3-3 just about halfway through the period but BU answered with just a hair over four minutes left in the period. 

Lane Hutson controlled the puck along the point before he drove wide and eventually to the front of the net. Hutson did exactly what his brother Quinn did to get the Terriers on the board in the first. He threw it right to the front of the net and the puck trickled under the pads of Close again. This time it gave the Terriers a lead.

And was the eventual game winner.

“If we backtrack the game, we made just a couple of critical mistakes against a really talented team and that was it,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “I give BU a lot of credit. They sold out in the third. They must have blocked 20 shots in the third period and we poured it all on.”

A couple of mistakes by the Gophers was the reason the game finished the way it did. A talented team like BU will capitalize on mistakes and they did just that. Close might have wanted one or two of the goals back but neither of the two “sloppy” goals that went under Close’s pads happened because he played it wrong. They wouldn’t had happened if the mistakes weren’t made. 

For a guy like Close, you feel for him. The fifth year senior’s collegiate career has officially ended. He finished with 101 games played and took over the starters’ crease after Jack LaFontaine left during the middle of Close’s Junior year. 

Justen Close fist bumps teammates after a win over Omaha on March 28th, 2024. Photo by Brad Rempel.

“It’s been a privilege and an honor. A responsibility that I’ve always cherished and never took lightly,” Close said on what it meant for him to be a Gopher. “I hope I was able to leave it better than I found it. I hope this program got a fraction of what I got out of it because it’s given me a lot.”

Close has finished his career with a 62-25-6 record and 13 shutouts. His 13 shutouts is tied for the program’s record. He also is tied for the University’s record for most wins in the NCAA Tournament. Close also finished sixth in program history in wins, third in goals-against average, ninth in saves, and first in save percentage. 

Now imagine if Close started the first three and a half years with the Gophers. He would have shattered every single Gopher goaltending record. A class act guy, a fantastic teammate, and one of the best goalies to ever play for the University of Minnesota. 

Brodzinski finished the year with 14 goals and 36 points in 39 career games. His career ended with 60 goals, 59 assists, and 119 points in 185 games played. Brodzinski tied Gene Campbell for 56th on the program’s all-time scoring list. 

The Minnesota native also became the 37th Gopher to score 60 goals in his career and the first Gopher to hit that mark since Justin Kloos, who did it in 2017.

For Nelson, he finished the season with career high 19 goals and 31 points. At the time of his first period goal, Nelson had scored or assisted on 13 of Minnesota’s last 26 goals (11-2=13). He had scored four of the team’s last five NCAA Tournament goals dating back to last season and ended his career with 11 points (5-6=11) in 11 National Tournament games, tying him for 14th in Gophers history in NCAA Tournament scoring. 

“Yeah I mean, those guys…,” Luke Mittelstadt said with tears in his eyes on Nelson and Brodzinski. “They work…, they are unreal guys. I’m gonna miss them like hell.”

Bryce Brodzinski, Jaxon Nelson, and Mason Nevers take a photo together. Photo by Matt Krohn

Motzko shared a story that before the year started he asked Nelson on day one what it feels like to be back for another year, a fifth year and if it was weird to be back. Nelson responded by saying “coach, it would be weird if I wasn’t here.”

That same core of seniors, along with the three fifth-year students have now pushed the Gophers to four straight regional final games. An incredible run and a big part of it was the Nevers, Nelson, and Brodzinski line. 

“I mean it was a reason you love coming to the rink every day,” Brodzinski said on playing with Nevers and Nelson. “You wait for Motzko to put the line chart up before practice and you kind of beg that you’re on their line every single day. I mean it’s the main reason that you re-fall in love with hockey every single day. Those guys make you want to get up and go to the rink and see your friends and they’re the main reason that I’m so in love with the game of hockey.”

That trio has been together over the last couple of years a lot. They have played huge minutes and have scored big goals for this team. Not only that but they have been incredible leaders and captains to this team. They have helped every player that has put on the Gophers jersey, even if it’s just for a practice, and have gotten the very best out of them and have taught everybody what it’s like to be a Gopher.

That trio plus Close and a few other Seniors like Mike Koster and Carl Fish have set this program up for success down the road. Their contributions to the team haven’t gone unnoticed but their leadership has instilled a culture in this team that could and will take this team far, despite their absence. It will be hard without a few of them next year but this team will carry on their messages for years.

“We are a player-led program. The heart that they have given to the guys in the locker room, their teammates, this program… It’s an incredible group,” Motzko said on Close, Nelson, and Brodzinski. “It’s been an honor to coach them and be around them. That leadership is setting its roots inside our group.” 

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