‘One in this is like Ten in the Regular Season’: Gophers set for another chance at the Title where heroes are made

March 25th, 2024: The NCAA Tournament is set and the Gophers will get another chance at history. It all starts Thursday. Who will be the hero?

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Jaxon Nelson celebrates a goal with Mason Nevers and Bryce Brodzinski. Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn

MINNEAPOLIS Senior assistant captain Mason Nevers stood at the podium on Monday and said last year’s loss to Quinnipiac still looms over a few players on this team, but that’s okay. Nevers believes it’s fuel and can be used as a positive.

“I mean, I think it will be positive for us,” Nevers said. “We obviously had a tough time trying to get over that. And you know, some guys still aren’t. I think it’s just positive momentum and just a little bit of motivation. So, yeah – trying to make up for it obviously, but you never really forget something like that.”

The Gophers will enter this year’s NCAA Tournament with some revenge on their mind but they did welcome a few newcomers to the team who weren’t a part of last year’s team that lost in overtime in the National Championship game.

“There’s two parts to that,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said when asked if last year’s game is extra motivation. “We’ll take it to our grave. You have a loss like that, like the Minnesota Vikings have a few losses that you take to your grave. That sports. I hate it but now it’s a new year.

“Every team we coach we want to get in that tournament and have our shot to get back at it and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Does it bring extra motivation that this year’s Frozen Four is in Minnesota?

“I mean, what if the Frozen Four was in Kansas? It wouldn’t matter. We want to be there,” Motzko said. “There’s no more motivation than you’ll ever have every year to get back to a Frozen Four.”

That’s the mindset of this team. Sure it’s great the Frozen Four is in Minnesota but you can’t think about that when you have to win two games before you even make it there.

The Gophers will face the Omaha Mavericks in the first game. If they win on Thursday against the Mavericks, they will face the winner of Boston University vs. RIT. If they win that, they can think about St. Paul and how they are back home. But funny enough, this team doesn’t want to be at home right now.

So Motzko took the team to Brainerd, Minnesota, over the weekend for some team bonding but also to just get away from home and be back on the road.

“We’ve been home for a month and a half,” Motzko said. “It does just get a little stale when you’re at home late in the year. We just went over [to Brainerd] and just had a little team bonding and now we get a chance to leave tomorrow again. So I hope we get the same results [like] the last couple of years.”

It sure worked the last two years the Gophers did this. They would go on the road the weekend before the regional because they had it off and spend some time as a team. They made it to the Frozen Four in both of those years and hopefully will make it a third time this year.

This year the Gophers will lean on experience as much as they can. They lost defensemen Jackson LaCombe, Brock Faber, and Ryan Johnson who have all played almost half the season in the NHL. They also lost forwards Logan Cooley and Matthew Knies who are making strong impacts in the NHL right now.

Yet they brought back Bryce Brodzinski, Jaxon Nelson, and Justen Close as grad students and had three import players return for their senior years in Nevers, Mike Koster, and Carl Fish.

The Gophers second line (N64 Line) will be leaned upon a lot in the playoffs. Photo by Matt Krohn.

Leaning on experience will be crucial for the Gophers and all six of those guys have had a pretty good track record of success when it matters the most. Close is a good example.

In his four playoff games last year, Close went 3-0-1 with a 2.01 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage.

“In our sport the goalie can be the backbone in a game and right now it’s one and done,” Motzko said. “I don’t know if you want to have it every game. We have players that can step up and not make that the case but we’ve got a guy [Close] we can trust. Who’s been through the battles, so we’re in a great spot there.”

One other is Brodzinski. The fifth year forward has played 183 career games for the Gophers and is a bit of a streaky player but when he is hot, watch out.

“There’s a fifth year player that has played 180 games in his career that we’re hoping to kind of find a little of that magic that he had a year ago, which he got going in the region,” Motzko said.

Brodzinski, 23, had 19 goals last season and recorded four goals and six points in the playoffs last season which included a hat trick in game one of the regional and the opening goal in the game against St. Cloud which sent the Gophers to the Frozen Four for the second straight season.

So it would be nice to get Brodzinski going again but it will also be nice for a lot of players to reset and start a new season, Nevers claims. Both Koster and Nevers missed the start of the season and despite both playing over 30 games this year, both of them have had their ups and downs and haven’t been able to really get going.

But the regular season is behind us now. It doesn’t matter if you scored 25 goals or three. It matters if you show up in the playoffs or not and Nevers feels it’s a fresh start for both him and senior captain Mike Koster.

“With how the year has gone, at times for me, it’s been up and down,” Nevers said. “But right now it doesn’t really matter. No one really cares about your regular season once the playoffs come so it kind of feels like a fresh start for myself. I bet Mikey is feeling the same way.

“There’s a lot of positivity around this and one goal in this is like 10 in the regular season. So no one really cares about your regular season once you start playing playoffs so try to bring that mentality and a fresh start with these guys.”

It’s that time of the year where you need someone or many, to step their game’s up and put their regular season struggles or success behind them and focus on one game at a time. The Gophers will need a couple of heroes to take this team far and whether that be Nevers, Koster, or Brodzinski, will remain unseen until Thursday.

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