With Michigan visiting, Gophers' ongoing rust removal efforts kick into higher gear
The Minnesota Gophers have lost just one of their four games in 2023, but their coach says they are still feeling the effects of nearly a month off. They face a Michigan team that senses desperation.
MINNEAPOLIS — They are ranked first in the Pairwise and second in the nation, and per one site that crunches numbers, they currently have 90% odds of winning the Big Ten title with 10 regular season games to play. But if Minnesota Gophers fans are looking for one more indication that their current team has the potential to be a special group that folks will wax nostalgically about years from now, consider this:
They have a respectable 2-1-1 record in 2023 coming off a 3-0 road win at Notre Dame, but their coach says in some ways, the Gophers are still trying to get their groove back following the 27 days they went without a game that counts.
“We have not been playing our hockey yet, since Christmas. Don’t feel sorry for us. We’re still doing OK, we’re just trying to get it going again,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko following their Wednesday practice. “You can’t help it. It’s probably playing out all over the country. You take all those days off and you just want to snap your finger and get back at it.”
With the reference to rust being a factor “all over the country,” Motzko could have been referring to Michigan, which is ranked seventh nationally in one national poll, and also currently sits sixth in the conference standings. The Wolverines had a break of more than a month without a game, then returned to the ice last weekend and allowed 52 Ohio State shots on goal in a 7-2 loss to the Buckeyes. Michigan bounced back to split the series, but interim Wolverines coach Brandon Naurato realizes that his team is facing a time crunch if they have designs on a conference title in 2023.
“We’re just worried about being better and getting back to what we’re going to do,” he said this week in an interview with the Michigan Daily. “We’re going (to Minnesota) with the thought process that we want to win Friday night and Friday night gives us a chance to sweep on Saturday. We need to sweep.”
On the ice, it will be a meeting between two of college hockey’s more dynamic rookies in Gophers forward Logan Cooley and Wolverines forward Adam Fantilli, who leads Michigan offensively with 29 points in just 18 games. He was one of six Wolverines who missed the Gophers games in Ann Arbor, Mich., in November due to illness. Minnesota won both.
“If you're looking for headlines, it’d be ‘They swept us at home. We were undermanned. They're the number one team in the country.’ They're a top team in general,” said Naurato, who took over his alma mater in August 2022 after former coach Mel Pearson was fired . “Minnesota is Minnesota, and they're a good team and they're tough to play in their own rink and we're looking forward to playing them but … we just need to win hockey games. So there's some urgency and desperation, or there needs to be, for us this weekend.”
Less than a month ago, Gophers like Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerud, Ryan Chesley and Luke Mittlestadt – who will miss this weekend’s series due to injury – were teammates with five Wolverines on Team USA at the 2023 World Juniors. They fell to Fantilli and Team Canada in the tournament semifinals and came home with the bronze medal. Chesley admitted that he and Michigan standout defenseman Luke Hughes bonded while wearing red, white and blue.
“I’d say we’re good friends. I got to know him really well at the tournament,” Chesley said. “This weekend though, not friends, obviously. Not going to treat him as a friend. And playing against Fantilli, obviously I know a little bit about him.”
By late Saturday night, Chesley and Gophers fans will surely know much more about Fantilli and the Wolverines, about their own team’s efforts to shake off the rust, and about the general state of the Big Ten hockey race.
The games versus Michigan face off at 7 p.m. CT on Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci limited tickets remained as of Thursday afternoon, and both games are expected to be sold out.
Friday’s game will be televised by Bally Sports North with Sam Ekstrom and former Gophers forward Casey Hankinson calling the game. The Saturday rematch will be carried by Big Ten Network with Dan Kelly and Fred Pletsch on the broadcast.
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.
The Gophers are 152-133-18 all-time versus the Wolverines with their first series coming almost exactly a century ago in Minneapolis. On Jan. 22-23, 1923, the Gophers won 2-0 and 3-0 in their inaugural games versus Michigan. In more recent history, the Wolverines won their last game in Minneapolis 4-3 in March 2022, to claim the Big Ten tournament title.