Gophers notebook: Harsh lessons of 2021 fuel Gopher women's return to No. 1 ranking
The Minnesota Gophers women's hockey team got to the top ranking in the nation a year ago, briefly. That ascendancy and fall from grace may keep them on top this season. Also, new-look Gophers men prep for Michigan State's visit.
MINNEAPOLIS — If there is a lesson that Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey coach Brad Frost has learned in the past 13 months or so, as his team has dealt with myriad on- and off-ice challenges, it is to savor the here and now.
This week, the Gophers learned they are considered the top team in the nation by poll voters, who elevated them to the pinnacle after a two week stretch which included a home sweep of then-top ranked Wisconsin, and a trip to second-ranked Ohio State where the Gophers grabbed four of six standings points with an overtime loss and a win.
“It was an incredible stretch for us,” Frost said this week, as his team convened on the ice to prep for a weekend home series versus Bemidji State. “We had these stretches last year and we were on the other end of them, so if you don’t enjoy them when you’re on the right side of them, when are you going to? We’ve earned the number one ranking, which is great, but now we’re just going to have more of a target on our back.”
The Gophers are 20-7-1 overall and 15-6-1 in the WCHA as the Beavers come to town. When Frost mentions being on “the other end” of stretches like that a year ago, he’s conjuring the painful memories of the final 11 games of the 2020-21 campaign. After an 8-1-0 start which had the Gophers atop the national polls on Jan. 15, 2021, then went 3-7-1 to close the season, and miss out on an invite to the eight-team NCAA tournament.
“It’s hard to believe that we were No. 1 at some point. I think that it was maybe for a week,” Frost said. “The way things ended last year is certainly motivation for our group. It was motivation for them over the summer and for the remainder of this year. With that negative and that adversity, a lot of positives have come out of it.”
For the Gophers players, last weekend was a microcosm of the season, and the resilience they learned a year ago. They lost a lead, and the game, to Ohio State, then bounced back to beat the Buckeyes the next night, just as they have — since a 1-3 start to the season, gone 19-4-1 since then.
“Every game is a big game, and you’re going to lose games. It’s really hard to go 42-0,” said Gophers goalie Lauren Bench. “There’s going to be ups and downs and there’s going to be losses and you’ve got to learn from them and come back the next night ready to win. That’s something our team has really found this year is that resilience.”
The games versus Bemidji State start at 6 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday at Ridder Arena, and both can be streamed on B1G+.
Spartans a deft challenge for revamped men’s lineup
Answering his third or fourth question about the three of his players off in China, skating for Team USA at the Winter Olympics, Gophers men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko said that was as much has he had talked about who will not be available for the next three weeks as he had done with anyone, including his staff.
If anything, the temporary loss of defenseman Brock Faber and forwards Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies is seen as an opportunity for those players further down the depth chart to get more ice time.
“We really haven't said anything. We wished them well and we said we’re going to man the fort while they're gone,” Motzko said on Tuesday. “There was a little excitement today in practice. There are a lot of minutes now that are going to get divvied up and there are guys excited about taking those minutes.”
It seems longer, as so much has changed, but the Gophers went to Michigan State less than a month ago and got their first (so far only) road sweep of the season with 4-1 and 6-3 wins, backstopped by Jack LaFontaine. With a new goalie and a revamped lineup this weekend when the Spartans come to Minneapolis, the visitors have caught a whiff of opportunity.
“They’ve lost some guys so we’re looking to jump on that and capitalize on the circumstances that present themselves,” said Spartans defenseman Dennis Cesana. “But they’re still a good team and have really good depth. Still a dangerous team.”
The Gophers have won their last seven in a row versus Michigan State, which enters the weekend with an 11-14-1 overall mark and a 5-11-0 record in Big Ten play. Of note for the Gophers, they can clinch home ice in the conference playoffs by grabbing five or more of the six standings points up for grabs this weekend.
Information on tickets for the Big Ten tournament, for which the Gophers are the defending champions, is available at the school’s ticket office website . The conference playoffs begin March 4-6 with best-of-three series played at campus sites. Minnesota enters the weekend with a 15-11-0 overall mark and a 10-6-0 conference record which has them in third place (behind Michigan and Ohio State) in the Big Ten.
Friday’s game versus Michigan State is a 7 p.m. CT start, while the Saturday rematch faces off at 5 p.m. CT. Both games will be broadcast by Bally Sports North with Charlie Beattie and Gigi Marvin on the call.
On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco 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 Facebook page .
The Gophers lead the all-time series versus Michigan State with a 127-50-16 record. They first played in East Lansing, Michigan, on Feb. 19, 1926 and shut out the Spartans 2-0. The Gophers then traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, later that same day and blanked Michigan 6-0.