Rinkytown blog: Timely power play goals giving Gophers a late-season boost
While their overall season-long power-play numbers are not great, the Minnesota Gophers' man-advantage unit has been scoring timely goals down the stretch. Also: two notable opponents move on, Edina pride remains strong among some, and several Gophers in the running for Big Ten awards.
MINNEAPOLIS — A year ago, the Minnesota Gophers led the nation in regular season wins, hung a banner after winning the Big Ten playoff title, returned to the NCAA Division I men's hockey tournament and made it to the final eight nationally.
If there was one chunk of kryptonite to thwart all of their superpowers, it came when an opponent headed to the penalty box. The Gophers’ power play struggled at times last season, scoring at a 17.7 percent clip, which was 33rd among the 51 teams that played hockey in 2020-21. In the final six games of the season — three in the Big Ten playoffs and two in the NCAA playoffs — the team went 5-1 despite their man-advantage unit going 0-for-13.
After more struggles this season, the Gophers actually rank 34th nationally in 2021-22, scoring at an 18 percent clip with the man advantage (by contrast, St. Cloud State leads the nation at 32.4 percent). But those numbers do not fully reflect what the power play has meant to the Gophers during their current eight-game winning streak, which earned them their first Big Ten regular season title under Bob Motzko.
The Gophers’ power play has scored at a 29 percent clip over the past five games, and the timing of the man advantage goals has been impeccable. In a 5-1 win at Ohio State on Feb. 12, a first-period power-play goal by Mason Nevers gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead it would not relinquish. A week later at Penn State, the Gophers trailed 3-0 in the first period and 4-2 in the second. Then Aaron Huglen scored a power-play goal in the third to tie the game 4-4, and the Gophers went on to win 6-4.
“(We have) five or six power-play goals and they’ve been just huge goals,” Motzko said this week. “When you’re on a winning streak, that’s an important part, and we were on the road for four out of six games. Our power play has been very efficient for us.”
With the playoffs here, and all games single elimination beyond this point, quality is clearly as important as quantity when an opponent goes to the penalty box for two minutes or less.
Heroes among the villains
With their five previous NCAA titles and their high profile, some in the college hockey world compare the Gophers to baseball’s New York Yankees — the traditionally successful big city team that folks love to hate. In the high school hockey world, there is little question that the Edina Hornets boys are the decades-old dynasty that draws the ire of fans from most other parts of the state when their familiar green-and-gold jerseys are seen on the ice of Xcel Energy Center in March.
There are three current Gophers who played prep hockey at Edina — senior defenseman Ben Brinkman, senior co-captain Sammy Walker (the 2018 Mr. Hockey winner at Edina) and sophomore forward Mason Nevers. The current Hornets, who opened state tournament play on Thursday afternoon with a loss to Maple Grove, feature junior forward Jimmy Clark, who is committed to the Gophers, and sophomore forward Jackson Nevers, who is Mason’s younger brother.
The three current Gophers with Edina roots attended the Hornets’ section final win over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and visited the jubilant team locker room after the game, where there was a big hug between the Nevers brothers.
“Just seeing the smile on his face, he’s earned it. It’s a really tough spot to be in there and this week is awesome. My family is really excited for it,” said Mason Nevers, in advance of the state tournament.
He admitted that high school hockey will take a back seat to college hockey this week with Jackson in the spotlight. “This is kind of his week. Hopefully they get more than one game at the X. They’ll lean more towards him, and I’m totally fine with that.”
Mason Nevers played in the state tournament with Edina twice, and said in high school he relished hearing the boos from fans, who loved to hate the Hornets and now from those who love to hate the Gophers.
“It’s the biggest compliment you can get,” Nevers said. “At Edina, and even here, the amount of boos you get from Duluth fans or St. Cloud fans, it’s just like in high school. You got to the X and they say, ‘From Section 6, your Edina Hornets,’ and the whole place erupts in boos. It kind of brings you a little bit of swagger. I’ve always been the villain, which is fun.”
Post-season moves happening
When the 2022-23 season begins and the Gophers start to defend their Big Ten title, a few familiar foes will not be there to bother them. With their seasons at an end, two notable names from Wisconsin and Michigan State elected to move on this week.
Often-penalized Badgers forward Roman Ahcan will no longer be a frequent visitor to the 3M Arena at Mariucci penalty box after the Burnsville native opted to forgo another season of college hockey and signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL, reporting to their AHL affiliate in Cleveland.
And Spartans star goalie Drew DeRidder, who finished his fourth season at Michigan State and is eligible for another college season, reportedly has entered the transfer portal in search of another place to stop pucks next season. A Michigan native and a former teammate of Gophers defenseman Matt Staudacher, DeRidder has widely been regarded one of the better goaltenders in the Big Ten, but his abilities have not translated to success for the team, which finished in the conference cellar this season and bowed out of the playoffs quietly versus archrival Michigan.
Gophers up for several conference awards
Motzko hopes that next week his team is focused on hosting the Big Ten playoff championship game, but there is likely to be other news on Tuesday. The conference will announce its season awards then, and several Gophers are in the running for honors, including Motzko, who is one of three finalists for Coach of the Year.
Other Big Ten award finalists include Ben Meyers for Player of the Year, Brock Faber for Defensive Player of the Year, Justen Close for Goaltender of the Year and Matthew Knies for Freshman of the Year.
Motzko has previously been named Xoach of the Year in his conference five times — twice each in the WCHA and NCHC with St. Cloud State and in 2020 with the Gophers in the Big Ten.
Saturday’s Big Ten playoff game versus Penn State is an 8 p.m. CT start and will be televised by Big Ten Network with Dan Kelly and former Gopher Ben Clymer calling the action. 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 were 3-1-0 versus the Nittany Lions in the regular season, splitting a November series in Minneapolis and sweeping a February series in State College, Pa.