MINNEAPOLIS -- “They are who we thought they were!” -- Dennis Green.
The late Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals coach was not talking about college hockey in a legendary post-game rant from 2006. But his words apply to what we have seen from the Minnesota Gophers in phase one of the current Big Ten season.
In a more traditional college hockey campaign, the holiday break is a time to take stock of what is working, and what needs work, on any given team, and a sign that the season, more or less, is half done. Of course, nothing has been traditional in 2020, and that holds true when discussing the Gophers in the program's 100th hockey season.
A year ago at this time, before we had ever heard the term “COVID-19” or could fathom how it would disrupt every aspect of life on Earth, the Gophers were a messy, but promising bunch. They took a break after going 5-9-4 pre-Christmas, including a 14-game stretch in which the Gophers won just twice. As coach Bob Motzko expected, many of the 12 newcomers on his roster had been thrust into significant roles, with predictable, uneven results.
Asked to grade the various aspects of his team -- forwards, defense, goaltending, special teams -- one year ago, Motzko listed them as “incomplete” in nearly every area. Meaning that there was still work to be done. In the second half of the season, before it all came crashing down due to the virus, the Gophers did the work.
They were 11-5-3 in the second half last season, coming within one win of sharing the Big Ten regular-season title, winning a conference playoff series, and putting themselves in position for a NCAA tourney invite before college hockey was cancelled on March 12 when the virus was declared a global pandemic.
With nearly all of their scoring back, all of their goaltending back, and an influx of young talent added to an experienced defensive corps -- plus an extra six weeks to practice, with the start of the 2020-21 season delayed due to the virus -- the Gophers were the consensus pick of the Big Ten coaches to win the conference title. Still, games and trophies are not earned on paper, and college hockey banners are not hung to celebrate poll rankings. So the question remained about how things would come together and how players would adjust to all the pandemic-related changes that have come, once a puck was dropped for real.
At this holiday break, Gophers have played eight games of what will be a 28-game regular season, if all goes as planned by the Big Ten. We have yet to see the rest of the conference schedule, which is a growing source of frustration among many Big Ten coaches.
Asking Motzko to grade his team at this point would likely be an exercise in folly, as a mere glance at their record provides a one-word snapshot of how things are going so far.
The Gophers are 8-0-0 and are ranked first in the nation (for the first time since November 2014) in the latest polls. They have not trailed at any point this season. They have not allowed a power-play goal. They have not allowed a goal of any kind in one-fourth of their games.
The goaltending duties have fallen fully on the shoulders of senior Jack LaFontaine, and the transfer from Michigan, in his second and final season as a Gopher, has been up to the task. The occasional soft goal he was prone to allow last season is seemingly gone, and he leads the Big Ten in goals-against average (1.00), saves percentage (.965) and winning percentage (1.000).
On the blue line, the Gophers have a mix of experience and talented youth that has clicked. For the last two games -- 3-1 and 4-0 wins at Michigan -- they were without Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Brock Faber, who are skating for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. The Gophers hardly missed a beat, with freshman Mike Koster scoring his first collegiate goal and little-used Sam Rossini stepping in to eat up some minutes on the back end. Although Motzko did say they looked “loose” in the final 20 minutes of the series, they allowed just one goal in 120 minutes of hockey.
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The coaches say they do not put traditional numbers on the quartet of forward lines, and that is a truism thus far, as the men listed fourth on the line chart have been nearly as dangerous offensively as the three groups of forwards listed ahead of them. As opposed to a team like Wisconsin or Michigan State, where opponents can gear up to stop the likes of Badgers sparkplug Cole Caufield or Spartans star Mitchell Lewandowski, the Gophers have presented a multi-headed monster for defenses to consider, with Motzko consistently rolling four lines.
While most are enjoying the mild winter that the Twin Cities has experienced thus far, seasoned Minnesotans can be assured that storms are coming. It will be cold and dark and snowy and the normal mid-winter test of our will is sure to come. It is the same for the Gophers, who almost certainly will face adversity in January and February. They will trail, they will allow power play goals, they will see a goalie have an off night, and they will face health issues.
But after eight games displaying the depth and experience we expected, and the on-ice results that back all of it up, the Gophers clearly are who we thought they were.