ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Whether or not you believe in Santa Claus, in this holiday season it’s starting to look like the time to believe in the Minnesota Gophers.
In their final game before what they expect is a break of a few weeks for the holidays, the still-unbeaten Gophers did some muscle-flexing on Wednesday at historic Yost Ice Arena, taking an early lead and never looking back on the way to a 4-0 win.
In improving to 8-0-0 overall and in the Big Ten, they used a formula that is basic and repeatable: get excellent goaltending, be solid on special teams, win the faceoff battle, and score early to reduce any needless late-game drama.
The goaltending part was the key, as senior Jack LaFontaine stopped all 34 shots he faced for his second career shutout, and by far the most emotional of his college career. He played two years at Michigan and was cut loose, unsure if he would play college hockey again before getting a second chance with the Gophers.
The only thing he did not fight off were the post-game tears, as he was overcome with emotion at getting a shutout versus the team he played for as a freshman and sophomore. After the final horn, several former Wolverines teammates gave LaFontaine hugs at center ice.
“This is a place I thought I was going to spend four years, so it means a lot to me,” LaFontaine said. “It was another great battle. My D were blocking everything.”
On this night it was familiar goal-scorers like Scott Reedy and Sammy Walker, along with unusual offensive suspects like Jaxon Nelson and rookie defensemen Mike Koster scoring the goals. But the guy in the net was the story, and the key.
“There’s a lot to say about tonight, but we get to the 4-0 lead and then our goaltender is our best player for the rest of the game,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “I didn’t like how loose we got but my goodness was LaFontaine on top of it tonight, to come back to Michigan and put on quite a show.”
The Gophers, who have not trailed this season, gave up 11 shots in the opening period while the Wolverines forced LaFontaine into some high-stress situations. A center ice turnover midway through the first spring Michigan center Luke Morgan on a solo rush to the net, but the goalie calmly gloved the backhander.
Meanwhile, the Gophers offense was at work, with Reedy getting his team-best sixth goal of the season by popping in the rebound of a long-range shot by Ben Brinkman. On the game’s first power play, the Gophers converted on a similar play, with Robbie Stucker getting the puck to the net from the blue line, Strauss Mann making the save, and Walker slapping the rebound home for a 2-0 lead.
The visitors used quick-strike offense in the second to double their lead, getting another power play goal off the stick of Nelson, who deposited a rebound after a drive-the-net play by Sampo Ranta. Just 22 seconds later it was 4-0 when Michigan defenseman Keaton Pehrson -- one of two Minnesotans in the Wolverines lineup -- threw the puck blindly up the slot where Koster intercepted and blasted a rising shot off the post and past Mann. It was the first collegiate goal for Koster, and chased Mann from the net in favor of freshman Erik Portillo.
Mann, the former Fargo Force star who was the Big Ten’s top goalie last season, has now been lifted in two of Michigan’s past three games. He finished with 13 saves.
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“He plays a tough game in net, so any night we get a couple past him is a good night,” Reedy said of Mann. “We were rolling on him and fortunately we put some in today.”
Portillo stopped all 17 shots he faced as Michigan fell to 5-5-0 overall and 3-5-0-1-0 in the conference.
The date and opponent of the Gophers’ next game is currently unknown, as the Big Ten has not yet released the second phase of the conference schedule. Motzko made it clear that he and the other league coaches are frustrated with the lack of insight about what is to come.
Click here for Jess Myers' post-game comments.
First period — 1. MINN, Scott Reedy 6 (Ben Brinkman, Sampo Ranta), 4:24; 2. MINN, Sammy Walker 3 (Robbie Stucker, Jack Perbix), 15:46, (pp). Penalties — Sammy Walker, MINN (slashing), 11:43; Jimmy Lambert, MICH (holding the stick), 11:43; Michael Pastujov, MICH (holding), 14:48; Jack Summers, MICH (10-minute misconduct, slashing the goalie), 15:46.
Second period — 3. MINN, Jaxon Nelson 2 (Ranta, Bryce Brodzinski), 6:43, (pp); 4. MINN, Mike Koster 1 (unassisted), 7:05. Penalties — Nick Granowicz, MICH (tripping), 6:21.
Third period — No scoring. Penalties — Granowicz, MICH (boarding), 2:44; Philippe Lapointe, MICH (cross checking), 6:12; Stucker, MINN (roughing), 6:12; Nathan Burke, MINN (slashing), 9:11; Nick Blankenburg, MICH (cross checking), 15:01.
Shots on goal — MINN 12-12-10—34; MICH 11-11-12—34. Goalies — Jack LaFontaine, MINN (34 shots-34 saves); Strauss Mann, MICH (17-13), Erik Portillo, MICH (17-17). Power plays — MINN 2-of-4; MICH 0-of-1. Referees — Sean Fernandez, Brett DesRosiers. Linesmen — Justin Cornell, Pat Richardson. Att. — NA.