MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Gophers have hit the holiday break with a 5-9-4 record, and will need a second half turnaround if they are to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
They currently sit 37th out of 60 teams in the Pairwise rankings, which mimic the system used to determine the 16-team tournament field. That places them sixth among the seven Big Ten hockey teams. Michigan is 38th.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko this week said that if he was to hand out midterm grades to his team, most of them would receive incompletes.
“We’ve got some missing assignments that we’re waiting to be turned in,” Motzko said, offering a position-by-position breakdown of his team.
Motzko pointed out that in the 18 games the Gophers have played, they have either been tied or had a third period lead in 13 of them.
“So we need one more goal, or one fewer goal against. That’s a doable thing,” he said. “If we’re averaging one more goal a game, our record is completely different.”
Offensively, sophomore forwards Sampo Ranta and Sammy Walker are tied for the team lead with 11 points each. Ranta leads the team in goals with seven, while freshman defenseman Jackson LaCombe is the team’s assists leader with eight. Motzko doesn’t like where they are now, but notes that with 11 freshmen still finding their way, he’s optimistic.
“We don’t have an offensive swagger about us, that’s the bad news. The good news is we’re not going to stay where we are,” he said. “We hope the break is coming at the right time, where you can see some players that will come back and have a great second half of the year.”
The Gophers lead the Big Ten in blocked shots with 282 in 18 games. That’s a positive sign on a team where three freshmen — LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Matt Staudacher — have been thrown into the college hockey fire. There have been plenty of optimistic signs, and plenty of back-breaking turnovers so far.
“We knew that was going to be a transformation area for us, playing three freshmen. Our grades are all over the map, but that’s the reality right now,” Motzko said. “We’ve done great on some quizzes and we’ve bombed some quizzes. But overall they’re moving in a really good direction.”
The Gophers have 11 power-play goals, which is one better than the 10 scored by Michigan State and Notre Dame. Their man-advantage units have scored on 18.6% of their opportunities, which is sixth among the seven teams in the conference.
“The power play is kind of like our offense. It’s helped us putting Robbie Stucker back there because he’s good on the power play, and it took him a few weeks to get some confidence going, but that’s been a key for us,” Motzko said, after Stucker got his first collegiate goal last Friday at Ohio State. “The second unit has got some goals, so now we’ve got two units doing better. But still, we have a lot of guys who are not scoring on the power play, so the numbers are not where we need them to be.”
The Gophers penalty kill is tops in the conference, tied with Ohio State as they kill 84.7% of the penalties called against them. Motzko notes that two freshmen have stepped up to make the difference.
“The penalty kill has been very good. Jaxon Nelson and Jack Perbix end up being our top penalty killers and they’re very strong at it,” said the coach. “They’re gaining confidence, and we’re very pleased with our penalty kill.”
The Gophers have allowed 60 goals in 18 games, which places them sixth (ahead of only Wisconsin) in the conference. Junior Jack LaFontaine and freshman Jared Moe have split time for the most part. Motzko was frank, saying that both need to improve, and that he’s willing to give the starting job to whoever is ready to claim it.
“We need more out of our goaltending. In the first half we allowed too many defendable goals. That’s an area that has to improve for us,” said Motzko, after LaFontaine started 10 games, with a 2-5-3 mark, and Moe started eight games, going 3-4-1. “We’re willing to let someone take it over and nobody has done it yet. So there’s a battle there, and we need that to improve for us to have more success in the second half.”
The Gophers are off until Dec. 28, when they host Bemidji State in the opening round of the Mariucci Classic.