Rinkytown blog: International quarterfinals still make Bob Motzko queasy
It has been four years since Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko has coached on the international level, but his experiences there had him sniffing trouble for Team USA before they were upset by Slovakia. Also: familiar faces abound for Gophers women, and goaltending numbers show notable improvement thanks to Close and smarter defense.
MINNEAPOLIS – Hours before the Team USA men suffered their shocking 3-2 shootout loss to Slovakia, thereby ending their quest for gold, or any medal for that matter, Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko felt trouble brewing.
His qualms about the quarterfinal round had little to do with this particular team, which featured one former and three current Gophers, and more to do with Motzko’s own experience in the round of eight in international play.
In 2014, Motzko (then the head coach at St. Cloud State) was the assistant coach for Don Lucia (then the Gophers’ head coach) with Team USA at the World Junior Championships, played in Sweden. The Americans were on a nice run, going 3-1-0 in the preliminary round and getting the second seed in their group.
Then, in the quarterfinal round versus Russia, a 3-2 lead disappeared and became a 5-3 loss, and just like that, it was over. If you win in the quarterfinal round, you will play for a medal. If you lose, it’s almost like you were never even there.
“It’s nerve-wracking, the quarterfinal game. It’s just the worst,” Motzko said on Wednesday afternoon, empathizing with what the American coaches were going through in the lead-up to the Slovakia game. “The gut acid going with that coaching staff right now is just the worst. Because you’re playing one game to get into the real tournament. I was part of heartbreak in ‘14.”
Three years later, the World Junior tournament was in Canada, and this time Motzko was the Americans’ head coach. They went 4-0-0 in the preliminary round and got the top seed, and again the quarterfinal round was trouble. Motzko’s team led Switzerland 2-0 before the underdog Swiss came back to forge a 2-2 tie. Jordan Greenway, now with the Minnesota Wild, scored late for the Americans, who survived the Swiss, then dispatched Russia and Canada – both in shootouts – to win gold.
“In ‘17 we almost lost,” Motzko said. “I hate the quarterfinal game. You just want to get through it.”
Familiar faces everywhere for Gophers women
If Joel Johnson wasn’t in China directing Team USA to a women’s hockey medal, the former Gophers assistant coach would be on the bench opposite Brad Frost and the Gophers women this weekend. Johnson, who was Frost’s top assistant and recruiter for more than a decade, is now the women’s head coach at St. Thomas, which has a home-and-home with the Gophers this weekend.
In Johnson’s stead, his top assistant Bethany Brausen is running the Tommies. She is also a former Gophers player and assistant coach, as is Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall. For Frost, there are seemingly familiar faces on every opponent’s bench these days, which is a de facto tribute to the development in the Gophers program.
“In a sense it’s been fun to see (Muzerall’s) success over there and seeing Bethany take over the head coaching duties and taking that on has been great,” Frost said this week. “I don’t look at it as an advantage for one team or another. Obviously we know each other but the players are the ones that play and the players are the ones that win games.”
Most coaches admit that they pick things up from the places they have played and the places they have coached previously. With that in mind, Frost said the St. Thomas and Ohio State coaches know him and his teams, but there is no propensity to switch things up as a result.
“We’ve changed things up, and with Bethany and Joel there, they’re probably doing things the way they want, and the same with Muzzy,” Frost said. What’s great is you’re together, you have success and then they go other places and form their own identity as far as how they want to do stuff.”
The Gophers, ranked atop the national polls again this week, are 24-7-1 overall. They will visit the Tommies at St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights at 7 p.m. Thursday, then close out the series at Ridder Arena with a 4 p.m. game on Saturday. The Gophers are leading the WCHA while the Tommies, in their first season of Division I hockey, are currently eighth with a 5-23-1 mark, meaning it is likely the Gophers and Tommies will meet again in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Back end boost for Gophers men
When the current college hockey season started, the thought was that the Gophers men would be rock-solid defensively with all of their blueliners and goalie Jack LaFontaine coming back, but the offense might need some time. At the holiday break, the Gophers were 10-8-0 overall, and the script had been flipped. Their offense had been very good, but LaFontaine had failed to match his numbers from the previous season, and there had been uncharacteristic turnovers on defense too often.
Then things really got upended in January, with LaFontaine unexpectedly signing a pro contract, handing the goaltending over to rarely-used junior Justen Close. Some predicted disaster, but the reality, as the Gophers have won a season-best four straight and have climbed into the top five in the PairWise, has been anything but disastrous. This week, Motzko acknowledged that two vital areas of the defensive game have improved, and the depth on the roster has allowed them to weather the storms of January.
“We’ve got a lot of good players here, and that’s still the key to it,” Motzko said, singling out one high-talent defenseman. “Jackson LaCombe is playing like an All American again. That really helps. And our goaltending numbers in the second half, compared to the first half, that really helps.”
Statistics don’t always tell the whole story, as Motzko has noted that due to defensive breakdowns, LaFontaine was left “hung out to dry” too often in the first half. But looking solely at the math, LaFontaine was 12-8-0 as the starter, with a .900 saves percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average. By comparison, Close has gone 7-3-0 as the starter with a .924 saves percentage and a 1.91 goals against.
It was also noted that the Gophers are allowing seven fewer shots per game, on average, in the second half than they were in the first half. Motzko said that’s a reflection not on their defense, but on their team’s offense.
“We have the puck more. With our forecheck, we’re spending less time in our zone and we’re more responsible on the backcheck,” he said. “That was really an issue for us early in the year, was our fundamentals coming back into our own zone, and we’ve really tightened that up.”