Minneapolis, MN – Minnesota is the youngest team in the nation, boasting 11 freshmen and only eight upperclassmen. There are bound to be growing pains as the team acclimates not just to a new team and new coach, but to college hockey itself.
Last weekend was a clash of opposites with as those same Gophers faced the back-to-back national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
Coming off a home sweep of Niagara, the Minnesota Gophers (3-3-0 Overall) were swept by the UMD Bulldogs (3-3-0) in a home-and-home series. Duluth just about drove Minnesota out of the building Friday night, dominating all areas of the ice en-route to a 5-2 drubbing of the home Gophers in the friendly confines of Mariucci Arena. Saturday’s affair was much tighter, with the Bulldogs tacking on an empty-netter in the closing seconds to prevail by a 2-0 margin.
Coming off a road sweep at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, the two-time defending NCAA champs got off on the right foot against the Gophers and never really looked back. Duluth scored 7:31 into the first, 7:24 into the second, and on the powerplay at 14:53 of the second to build what felt like an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
Credit to the Gophers for fighting back – Ben Myers scored his first goal as a Gopher with just 11 seconds left in the middle period to cut the lead to two and give Minnesota a spark, and Sammy Walker scored at 8:36 of the third period to draw the Maroon and Gold within one.
Duluth was too strong, though, and re-took their two-goal lead just over a minute after the Walker goal. Scott Perunovich put the nail in the coffin on the powerplay at 15:11 to close the book on the scoring, and on the Gophers, who fell to a 5-2 scoreline.
Jack LaFontaine was the starter in goal for Minnesota Friday night, like he has done every Friday of his early Gopher career, but he was relieved with about five minutes to go in the third by freshman Justen Close. The Canadian freshman got his first game action as a Gopher, and figures to see some more time between the pipes as the season progresses. As for LaFontaine, it will be interesting to see if he gets the start this upcoming Friday as the Gophers host #5 Notre Dame.
The Bulldogs got off to a good start again on Saturday at AmsOil Arena up in Duluth. UMD killed off an early Gopher powerplay, and Quinn Olson scored what would wind up being the only real goal of the game at 6:04 of the first period to give the Bulldogs a narrow 1-0 lead.
The game would stay 1-0 almost the rest of the way, despite seven more total penalties and lots of quality looks on net. Duluth goalie Hunter Shepard showed why the Bulldogs have ridden him to back-to-back national championships, stopping all 21 of Minnesota’s shots on goal – including breakaways by Sammy Walker and Sampo Ranta – to earn a well-deserved shutout.
Duluth tacked on an empty net goal in the final minute of the third to lock the game up and win it 2-0.
Minnesota’s Jared Moe was between the pipes for the Gophers on Saturday, again his usual starting day. Over the first six games of the season, while both goalies have looked at least competent, Moe has impressed more consistently. The freshman goalie has put together a 2.01 GAA and 0.919 Sv%, compared to LaFontaine’s 3.43 and 0.878.
Overall, the Gophers looked like a much better hockey team Saturday night. They played a good UMD team on their home ice pretty even-up, trading chance for chance. Thus far into the season, the defense has been better than expected, but the team seems to lack in terms of finishing ability on the offensive side of the puck. Sammy Walker is great, but he cannot do it alone.
Coach Motzko has switched up the line combinations all throughout the year, but he seemed to find some magic when putting Ben Myers up on the wing with Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin. Myers and Walker combined for two goals in two periods Friday, and played together all game on Saturday. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that threesome stick around for at least a few more games, as they created a lot of offensive spark, although it reduces the quality at center throughout the lineup – Myers had been centering the third line prior to his promotion to first line winger.
Up next, Minnesota kicks of its conference season by hosting Notre Dame. The #5-ranked Irish are undefeated so far, sweeping Air Force and LSSU to open their season. Game times are unusual for this weekend – Friday night is a 7:30PM start, while Saturday’s contest is at 4PM. Friday’s game can be seen on BTN, and Saturday is on FSN. Both games can be streamed on Fox Sports Go, and are on the radio at AM1130.