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Sunshine and sweep sought as Gophers make first-ever trip to Arizona State

Ranked second in this week's national polls, the Minnesota Gophers' focus as they head into a nonconference series with Arizona State is to enjoy Thanksgiving, get some sun and win a pair of games

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Minnesota Gophers defenseman Luke Mittelstadt (20) takes the puck along the boards against Penn State in the first period Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Jason Wachter / The Rink Live

TEMPE, Ariz. — Some folks go to great lengths to get home for Thanksgiving. Minnesota Gophers hockey coach Bob Motzko admitted this week that after decades of working in hockey, he prefers to have his turkey on the road. It can be important bonding time, especially on a team like the No. 2-Gophers with 10 new faces on the roster, and the road can be a place where there are fewer distractions.

As the Gophers make the first trip to Arizona in 101-plus seasons of hockey at the U of M, the distractions may come in the form of sunshine, and temperatures that are predicted to hit 70 or better each day that the Gophers are there. For Motzko and his team, they seek a balance between enjoying the climate while also focusing on winning both games ahead of diving back into their Big Ten schedule the following week.

Motzko joked that he would tell us on Sunday whether or not the team was able to strike that balance, but said they are looking forward to a break from the Minnesota chill and the opportunity to see ASU’s new 5,000-seat rink that temporarily doubles as the NHL's Coyotes home ice.

“They know what’s going on. We’re going down there, let’s enjoy it,” said the coach, following the team’s Tuesday practice at Ridder Arena. “It’s Thanksgiving and I’d much rather be on the road for Thanksgiving than be at home.”

Those new faces are now 14 games into their college hockey careers and are making more important contributions each week. For all of the deserved praise of the Gophers’ veteran defensive core, it was rookie blueliner Luke Mittelstadt named the conference's first star of the week after he put up a goal and three assists during last weekend’s sweep at Michigan.

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“It’s a bunch of great kids that came in and obviously we mesh really well together,” said defenseman Jackson LaCombe, who scored the Gophers’ first goal in Friday’s 6-3 win at Michigan, following a set-up pass from Mittlestadt. “I think (Luke) is playing unbelievable hockey. Obviously he’s a stud. It’s awesome to have him in there and he’s just starting to show what he can do.”

The Sun Devils are 7-6-0 overall and have flirted with the national top 20, despite losing a pair at Clarkson last weekend. The losses snapped a five-game winning streak for ASU, which included a sweep of Colorado College in Tempe and a win over North Dakota in Las Vegas. Excitement abounds in Tempe with Minnesota coming to town, which is reflected in some inflated secondary market prices for tickets this weekend.

“It’s a great opportunity. That’s how we have to approach this and look at it, as a top team in the country coming into our new building, and showcase what college hockey's all about,” Sun Devils coach Greg Powers said this week. “That’s exciting for our program and exciting for our fans. We’re hoping to put on a good show.”

It is 1,600 miles from Minneapolis to Tempe but connections abound between the two rosters Gophers forward Matthew Knies, who is from Arizona, is good friends with ASU forward Josh Doan, and the Sun Devils roster includes five players with Minnesota hockey roots, as well as one from Fargo.

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Weekend details

The Friday and Saturday games at Arizona State face off at 8 p.m. CT at Mullett Arena, on the ASU campus. Both games will be televised/streamed by Pac-12 Insider and produced by ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Ben Pokorny and Joseph Furtado will call the games, along with sideline reporter Sammy Miller.

On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco in their 11th season together describing the action.

Postgame interviews with coach Motzko and Gophers players can be seen live, roughly 10 minutes after the final horn at The Rink Live’s YouTube page .

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The Gophers are 6-0-0 all-time versus the Sun Devils with their first series coming in March 2019. All previous contests have been played at 3M Arena at Mariucci, with Minnesota out-scoring Arizona State 40-10 in the half-dozen. During the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season, when Big Ten teams played conference games only, the Sun Devils worked out an affiliate agreement with the conference where ASU got four road games at each Big Ten school, in exchange for each Big Ten member playing two future games in Tempe. “We all owe them a trip, so I picked first,” Motzko said.

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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