What has been a pleasant surprise to fans of the Colorado Avalanche in the past few weeks is something Minnesota Gophers fans have known for the past three years. Namely, Sampo Ranta is a good player.

Ranta, 21, who signed with the Avs shortly after his junior season with the Gophers ended in March, will not be headed back to Colorado’s AHL team, and will begin the season in Denver with the big club. That gives the Gophers’ program 18 alumni on opening day NHL rosters.

“Sampo’s big and strong. Is it surprising, no,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “He’s physically capable of handling anything and mature. Really a mature kid for a pro lifestyle. You tip your hat and wish him the best. He meant the world to this program, and he means the world to us. So we’re excited for him.”

Ranta, who is from Finland, led the Gophers offensively last season with 19 goals and 12 assists for 31 points in 31 games. He made his NHL debut in the playoffs for the Avalanche and had no points in two appearances.

The 18 ex-Gophers who will start the season on NHL rosters are:

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Jake Bischoff — Vegas Golden Knights

Nick Bjugstad — Minnesota Wild

Travis Boyd — Arizona Coyotes

Alex Goligoski — Minnesota Wild

Erik Haula — Boston Bruins

Justin Holl — Toronto Maple Leafs

Erik Johnson — Colorado Avalanche

Phil Kessel — Arizona Coyotes

Nick Leddy — Detroit Red Wings

Ryan Lindgren — New York Rangers

Casey Mittelstadt — Buffalo Sabres

Kyle Okposo — Buffalo Sabres

Rem Pitlick — Minnesota Wild

Sampo Ranta — Colorado Avalanche

Mike Reilly — Boston Bruins

Nate Schmidt — Winnipeg Jets

Brady Skjei — Carolina Hurricanes

Blake Wheeler — Winnipeg Jets

Big Ten recognizes McLaughlin’s hot start

The Gophers were 9-0-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation last season before a shot off the blade of Blake McLaughlin crossed the opponent’s goal line. It was an uncharacteristically slow start for the top-line forward from Grand Rapids, Minn. After netting two goals versus Arizona State in the Gophers’ 10th game of the season, McLaughlin would add 10 more goals and finish third on the team offensively.

Last weekend versus Mercyhurst, he gave notice that there will be no early season doldrums in 2021-22. Playing with long-time linemate Sammy Walker and Bryce Brodzinski, McLaughlin recorded a goal and four assists versus the Lakers and was named the Big Ten’s third star of the week.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko, forward Jack Perbix and forward Bryce Brodzinski spoke with the media following practice on Tuesday, Oct. 12. 2021.

"The past couple years, McLaughlin has kind of struggled right away, so me and Sammy wanted to get him a goal early because the past couple years he’s struggled early,” Brodzinski said. “Just getting him going, he kind of showed last weekend that he was one of the best players on the ice the entire weekend. I think that’s big for everyone to get our team going right way, get a few goals in us.”

Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine deflects a shot by St. Cloud State forward Chase Brand during the third period of the Mariucci Classic Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, at the 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn. Jason Wachter/The Rink Live
Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine deflects a shot by St. Cloud State forward Chase Brand during the third period of the Mariucci Classic Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, at the 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn. Jason Wachter/The Rink Live

Defense in focus after Lakers score 7

Motzko has been known to give his team a Monday off after a sweep now and then. The Gophers swept Mercyhurst, to be sure, but they gave up seven goals and needed to rally on Saturday to get the second win. So they were on the ice Monday, working on their defense with a series versus high-scoring St. Cloud State looming.

“We made it pretty tough last week,” Motzko said, recapping the Lakers series. “Friday night, we left our brains in Dinkytown. We came with all heart. Our guys were chomping and ready to go, but we didn’t even resemble how we had to play.”

After winning 7-4 on Friday, the Gophers trailed 2-0 early and were down 3-2 entering the third on Saturday before a trio of goals in the final 20 minutes — two of them by Brodzinski — gave them the sweep. The comeback was, the players hope, a sign that even when they are down, they still have life.

“I learned that we’re not out of it. Obviously we didn’t have our best weekend but we fought back and pulled out a win, which says a lot,” said Jack Perbix, who assisted on Ben Meyers’ game-winner on Saturday. “We obviously could’ve sat down and lost that second game, but we pulled through.”

To play a more sound defensive series versus SCSU, the Gophers have been concentrating on the fundamentals of playing without the puck early in the week.

“We just need to get back to the house. If you go back on the film, we were too scattered in the 'D' zone,” Perbix said. “We need to get back to the house and then branch out from there. Rather than trying to get the puck and trying to go on offense right away, we have to make sure we get the puck first of all.”

The weekend series will be only the second and third meetings with the Huskies since Motzko came to the U of M in 2018 following 13 seasons as the St. Cloud State head coach. The Gophers won 4-1 on Dec. 29, 2019, in Minneapolis to win the most recent Mariucci Classic holiday tourney. Minnesota leads the all-time series 27-17-5, but the Huskies are 6-4-0 in their last 10 meetings.

Free hockey gear to be distributed on Saturday

While many folks complain about the high cost of youth hockey, the Minnesota Wild are once again doing something about it. In conjunction with Let’s Play Hockey, the Wild are once again distributing thousands of pieces of used hockey gear that have been donated at arenas throughout the Twin Cities over the past few weeks.

On Saturday, Oct. 16, from 10 a.m.-noon, that hockey gear will be available for free inside the main lobby of Xcel Energy Center. The moving professionals from Two Men and a Truck picked up gear that was donated at arenas in Coon Rapids, Delano, Eden Prairie, Edina, Hastings, Lakeville, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, Oakdale, Plymouth, Rogers, Rosemount, Roseville, St. Louis Park, St. Paul, Sartell, Shakopee, Stillwater, White Bear Lake and Woodbury.