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MINNEAPOLIS- When the Gophers got swept by the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs last weekend, Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said despite two losses he liked the way his team played. The result wasn’t what they had envisioned but the overall structure of the game they played was what he wanted.
“It’s awful to lose two games. But it’s how you’re playing and how you respond. Moving forward we knew we were very capable of winning,” Motzko said. “We played very well last Saturday night. We carried that play into this weekend and that’s two big wins for us to start off the Big Ten play.”
The way the Gophers have played defensively through the first five games this year has not been what many have expected. Especially since the Gophers had arguably the best d-corps in the Big 10 last year.
Constantly turning the puck over and allowing numerous breakaways, Gophers goaltender Jack LaFontaine was thrown under the bus by many. Some say he isn’t the same as he was last year when he won the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in Division I Men’s hockey.
In reality, the goals LaFontaine has allowed past him have been a result of multiple defensive miscues by the Gophers. LaFontaine has played much better recently and he showed that against the Irish. The native of Mississauga, Ontario, stopped 54 out of the 57 he faced last weekend against the Irish, holding a 2-0-0 record, 1.50 goals-against average, and a .947 save percentage. Jack was able to earn the slogan “Jack is back” from his coach and multiple players.
Not only did LaFontaine quiet many haters but so did the Gophers defense. “That was our best game by our defenseman this year,” Motzko said after the 4-1 win on Friday, “I hope to be standing here on Saturday saying the same thing.”
It was more of the same for the Gophers on Saturday as they were able to hold off the Irish for a 3-2 victory, eventually completing the sweep outscoring the Irish 7-3. Not only did the Gophers play well defensively over the weekend, but they also were able to score the first goal of the game in each of the two contests. Something they haven’t done since the first game of the season when they ran over the Mercyhurst lakers 7-4.
The Gophers were able to get some big-time goals out of some of their younger players, which is always a great sign. “Sometimes in the season you need some guys to make big-time plays for you,” Motzko said, “We needed a play and we got one.”
Mason Nevers in particular scored a possible top ten highlight-reel goal in game one of the series to make it 3-1 in the final minutes of the third. Nevers as humble as he could be after scoring a beautiful goal, credited his linemate Matthew Knies for a great pass to set him up.
“Notre Dame was scrambling a bit down by one so we were just trying to get the puck deep. Knies made a great cross-ice pass to set me up one on one, the defender came over and I just cut to the middle to get the shot off, and luckily it found its way in.” Nevers said after eventually sealing the game and giving his team their first Big Ten win of the season.
Beauty from Mason Nevers pic.twitter.com/W0Xg5kZYSk
— Internet #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) October 30, 2021
The Gophers have been without Sophomore defenseman Mike Koster since game one of the Duluth series. Through five games on the year, Koster has a goal and an assist. He also provides strong play defensively on the backend for the Gophers. Analytically, Koster has been great as well so it is tough to see him out of the lineup.
Carl Fish has stepped right into Koster’s spot on the backend and has provided a strong physical presence to this Gophers blueline. “He is a big, strong, and physical kid who plays with heart. He is a leader who has the ability to eat minutes for us,” Motzko said on how Fish plays. “He has been playing with more confidence and we think in time he will become a very good defenseman for us.”
One guy who hasn’t gone without notice is the way Gophers defender Ryan Johnson has been playing. Through eight games on the year, Johnson leads all Gophers’ defensemen in points with six and carries a remarkable 2.37 xGF over his last three games, which leads all Gopher skaters.
You know what you’re going to get out of Johnson, he’s a smart player who constantly is thinking the game at a high level. Being outshot 8-1 with under six minutes left in the first period, Johnson had the puck behind his own net. Notre Dame went off for a change and Johnson made them pay, he found Ben Meyers flying up the left side, a long stretch pass put Meyers in position to skate it into the Irish zone and eventually score a gorgeous wraparound goal.
“Notre Dame won’t like it but if you turn the puck over to Ryan Johnson, he is going to make you pay and he did on the transition goal,” Motzko said on the first goal for the Gophers in Friday’s 4-1 win. Johnson finished the game with two assists and a 3.58 xGF/60.
If you looked up "wrap-around goal" in the dictionary, this is what you would see pic.twitter.com/biEzqLtWfg
— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 30, 2021
The Gophers are set to continue their Big Ten play this weekend on the road for two games against the Wisconsin Badgers, who currently are 1-3-0 in their last four games and 3-5-0 on the season.
Grant Cruikshank suffered an injury in game two against the Irish and missed the rest of the game. The timetable is currently unknown and is pending evaluation. Motzko states they will be without him for a while.
Chaz Lucius was battling through an upper-body injury in the St.Cloud series and missed both of the Notre Dame games. Chaz will play when he is ready to play – per Bob Motzko
Gophers are still without Sophomore defenseman Mike Koster who was hurt in game one vs Duluth and will likely miss the first if not both of the Wisconsin games.
1. xGF is the expected value of goals for each skater given the probability of each shot and the frequency of shots.
2. “Expected Goals For” per 60 would be the average number of goals one would expect said player to record for every 60 minutes of ice time said player receives.