By Jess Myers
MINNEAPOLIS — It was noticeably quieter inside the Minnesota Gophers’ home rink this week, as players skated loosely while prepping for final exams. In Bob Motzko’s first season as head coach, the team is a game below .500, at 5-6-4, entering a 20-day break for the holiday. They will play 20 more regular season games after Christmas, starting Dec. 28 when Ferris State comes to visit.
Motzko looked relaxed, still on a bit of a high after his team’s 4-3 come-from-behind win at Michigan last Saturday, sending them into the break on a high note. He took a position-by-position look at the team after 15 games and we handed out grades for what they’ve done so far, and what they need to do in the second half of the season.
Here’s a look at defense and goaltending. Part 2 will be a look at the forwards and special teams.
Goaltending — A
While he hasn’t officially named a No. 1 goalie, junior Mat Robson has taken over the role on a de facto basis, starting 11 of the team’s 15 games, including the last four in a row. The Toronto area native has been stellar on most nights, including a season-high 50 saves in the Gophers’ Saturday night win at Michigan. While other parts of the Gophers’ game have been uneven, the coach sees goaltending as the one thing he hasn’t had to worry about.
“Our goaltending has been giving us every opportunity to get better as a hockey team and given us chance to be successful,” Motzko said. “The only reason we’re hanging in, or a big reason we’re hanging in right now is goaltending.”
While Robson has been stellar in compiling a .928 saves percentage (4-3-4, 2.51 goals-against average), senior Eric Schierhorn has had a tougher go. He’s 1-3-0 in his four starts (.899, 2.21) and has often lacked the goal support that Robson has gotten. Schierhorn was the No. 1 goalie before Robson became eligible a year ago at this time, averaging more than 30 starts his first three seasons, so Motzko is confident he is ready to play when called upon.
“Eric Schierhorn is an unbelievable leader,” said the coach. “He knows that at some point he’s coming back and he’s got to be ready to play, so we’re in a great spot at goaltender.”
Defense — C-
A play in the opening minute of the Gophers’ Saturday night win at Michigan illustrates the good and bad of the Gophers defense so far.
Rookie Ben Brinkman threw a pass across his own blue line — the kind of pass coaches warn you about when players are 10 — that was intercepted by a Michigan forward, causing a breakaway. Robson stopped it. Brinkman recovered the puck and made a play (on the same shift) that resulted in a Brannon McManus goal 68 seconds into the game.
It’s the kind of play that makes a coach smile, and scream, at the same time.
“Our ‘D’ core is right now our greatest question,” Motzko said. “The group is having a hard time settling into its role and identity. It kind of throws a curveball where we’ll be solid one night and defending and they show you some points one night. But overall, you know, we haven’t had real strong consistent play there.”
In terms of producing offense, senior Jack Sadek and sophomore Clayton Phillips both have eight points. But off nights defensively have led to Robson’s huge workloads, and Motzko says the goalie’s stellar play has covered up many defensive mistakes. It’s decidedly a work in progress.
“We’ve been very below average in getting the puck up and transitioning either out of our own end or through the neutral zone the way we want to do it,” Motzko said. “Now part of that might be on us to change a lot of our ways we’re going to throw the puck around in the second half. And that’s something we’ll look at over the holiday break and how we approach the second half to see if we can make something easier for that group.”