February 10th, 2023: Gophers goaltender Justen Close picks up back-to-back shoutouts to tie a school record for most in program history.
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Minneapolis, Minn – The story of Justen Close continues. Just over three seasons ago Close was the Gophers’ third-string goaltender. He had played four games in his career for the Gophers in his first two seasons. He allowed six goals in his only game his Sophomore year and had a 6.09 goals-against-average and a .786 save percentage in the three games of his Freshman season.
But Close just kept grinding and tried to get better over the years in practice. Finally, a door opened. Jared Moe who was the Gophers backup to Jack LaFontaine, left for the transfer portal and moved to Wisconsin to play for the Badgers. Close was set to become the new backup for the Gophers.
In the second half of the 2021-22 season, LaFontaine left the Gophers in his fifth season to go on and play in the NHL for the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were in need of a goaltender quickly and with LaFontaine’s track record of success in the NCAA the Canes quickly signed LaFontaine. Close was then named the starter of one of the best teams in the nation.
He finished the season with a 1.95 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage for a 14-5-0 record and helped the Gophers reach the Frozen Four tournament. Close then showed the next season that the previous one wasn’t a joke. He went 26-10-1 with six shutouts and carried the Gophers to the National Championship game.
Mason Nevers has been a part of this remarkable story for a while now as a senior but did he know that when he came in that the third-string goaltender would eventually take over and tie the school record for shutouts?
“Definitely not that,” Nevers said laughing. “But the funny thing is when he stepped in our team had no doubt that he was going to do his job. We saw it every day in practice with his compete level. We knew how charismatic he was in the net and all that confidence and swagger. We felt like he was going to be a big piece for us once got the job. But he’s kind of ran away with it, obviously, and we’re with them throughout it all.”
But this year it has been more of the same for Close. The Gophers are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games and 18-7-5 on the season. They have been on fire recently and it’s started with their goaltender. Close stopped all 66 shots he faced this weekend to earn back-to-back shutouts over the Penn State Nittany Lions to tie the program record with 13 career shutouts. He tied Kellen Briggs and Adam Wilcox for the school’s most.
“I’ll repeat it, this is one of the more remarkable stories of my coaching career,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said on Close. “That’s what athletes do. It never ceases to amaze you what these young people can do.”
Close won the Big Ten Player of the Week last week and is likely on his way to another after stopping all 66 shots he faced over the weekend.
Tonight’s game was almost the same as yesterday’s other than it was Aaron Huglen who got the first two goals for the Gophers rather than Rhett Pitlick. But Pitlick did set up the second Huglen goal. Both of Huglen’s goals came from the same area on the ice and both were one-timers from the circle.
“Oh man,” Huglen said on his carbon-copy goals. “I mean yeah, the puck just finds you sometimes and I was just happy to be there.”
Nevers had a goal overturned last weekend, which was an extremely controversial call, so it was good for him to find the back of the net this weekend and for it to count. But the referees did stop and talk a bit after Penn State’s coach asked for something. The play continued though as it was singled a good goal.
“Yeah, I mean I saw them about a talk about maybe another review again, I was like you got to be kidding me,” Nevers said laughing. “It felt good to contribute and it kind of finally stick on the scoreboard and help us get a win.”
The Gophers ended up walking away with back-to-back 3-0 wins over Penn State which is looking like who they will play come playoff time for the Big Ten. But Gophers head coach Bob Motzko is not thinking of that right now. He’s just happy his team has figured out their early season struggles.
“It looks pretty well that’s going to happen,” Motzko said on facing Penn State round one. “You’re way ahead of me,” Motzko replied when asked if he has confidence facing them after this weekend.