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Exhibitions provide chance for Gophers to find game shape, so their elevator keeps punching higher floors

Their return to games that count is still a week-plus away, so the Minnesota Gophers want to use a pair of exhibition games to shake off some rust and pick up where they left off.

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Minnesota Gophers forward Matthew Knies (89) makes a pass against Penn State in the second period Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Jason Wachter / The Rink Live

MINNEAPOLIS – Even after a win, Bob Motzko is not one to freely heap praise on an opponent, but about this time a year ago, he made an exception after his Minnesota Gophers won an exhibition game versus the USA National U18 team. One of the goals scored by Team USA that night came off the stick of then-Gophers recruit Jimmy Snuggerud.

“I loved it,” Motzko said that night, with a broad grin. “He’s going to be a fun player.”

Almost exactly 12 months later, Snuggerud is the Gophers’ leading scorer as a freshman, and the newest version of Team USA is in town to face the Gophers. The guys in red, white and blue include a pair of players who will wear maroon and gold next season, in forwards Beckett Hendrickson and Oliver Moore.

“For Ollie and Hendy to come back and get to play (here) I know it’s big for them, and of course they want to score, and we’re going to try and make sure that doesn’t happen,” Motzko said on Wednesday morning, after his team practiced. “But if they do, it’s kind of a win-win.”

After a few weeks of what the coach called an important physical and mental break, the Gophers are still more than a week away from a “real” game, when they travel to St. Cloud State on Jan. 7. The two exhibition games – versus Team USA on Thursday and at Bemidji State on New Years’ Eve – will serve to help the team shake off any rust that built up during their time away, where the approaches to rest and relaxation took different forms.


Gopher captain Brock Faber, back in Maple Grove with his family for Christmas, admitted that he still skated most days. Sophomore star Matthew Knies went home to Arizona where his family enjoyed their traditional Christmas Day swordfish. Knies – who played a full season for the Gophers in 2021-22, plus World Juniors in the winter and the summer, plus the Olympics in China – confessed that he needed some time away from the ice, and while enjoying the sunshine and warm temps in the desert, his skates didn’t leave his bag. But the process of getting back into game shape is underway.

“Players have to catch stride and some players have to catch that little fire,” said Knies, who is skating on a line with freshmen Garrett Pinoniemi and Connor Kurth this week with his two normal linemates – Snuggerud and Logan Cooley – skating for the Americans at World Juniors in Canada. “It’s nice to get puck touches coming back from break. (After) taking our skates off and kicking our feet up, it’s nice to get back to taking strides and playing the body a little bit. I think this is going to be a real good warm-up.”

Motzko said with four players off at World Juniors (defensemen Ryan Chesley and Luke Mittlestadt are also skating for Team USA), it is also a chance to get players like goalie Own Bartoszkiewicz, forward Colin Schmidt and defenseman Carl Fish some ice time in a game situation. The coach noted that junior defenseman Matt Staudacher, who has not played this season, will not appear in either exhibition games and is planning to redshirt this year, to have two more seasons of eligibility after finishing his undergraduate degree in the spring.

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The trip to Bemidji State is also an important game for Motzko, who has committed to having the Gophers face the five other in-state teams as often as they can. They play non-conference series with Minnesota State Mankato and St. Cloud State this season, and faced Minnesota Duluth in a two-game series last season. They also played an exhibition versus St. Thomas at Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul a year ago.

Motzko has quoted Woog on a few occasions, as the late Gophers coach was fond of saying that teams are like elevators: they’re always going up or down, never staying in one place, and you need to make sure your elevator keeps going up.

The Gophers went into the break having won eight of nine, in first place in the Big Ten and ranked atop one national poll. The challenge now is to use these exhibition games to be ready for the Huskies and then a dive back into the conference schedule, to make sure the team’s elevator keeps heading to higher floors.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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