MINNEAPOLIS -- The abrupt end of the college hockey season did not allow for much reflection on the good and the bad of the 2019-20 campaign. On Thursday, March 12, less than 24 hours before they were to depart for a Big Ten playoff game at Penn State, the Minnesota Gophers learned it was over. Done. Finished. Their season, and all seasons, canceled in an effort to slow the coronavirus.
After coming from behind to beat Notre Dame 3-2 in the finale of a best-of-three playoff series at 3M Arena at Mariucci in what turned out to be their last game, the Gophers finished with a 16-14-7 overall record. In the Big Ten they finished tied for second with a 9-8-7 mark, winning the extra point in four of those seven official ties.
For coach Bob Motzko, his second-year results behind the bench were remarkably similar to his first, when he also finished two games above .500 overall, one game above .500 in the conference, and won a first round playoff series at home. But the cast of characters was notably different in year two, with 11 freshmen and one incoming transfer on the roster, meaning a dozen new faces in the Gophers locker room when they gathered for that first official practice in September 2019.
The team, and the Big Ten, will eventually hand out year-end awards. That process, like so much in American life currently, has been disrupted and delayed. While we wait for those official words, The Rink Live offers this take on the superlatives from an abbreviated season.
Most Valuable Player -- Some eyebrows were raised in the fall when Sammy Walker became the first sophomore in modern Gophers hockey history to be named a co-captain. Up to that point, he had won Mr. Hockey as a senior at Edina High School, was named the Big Ten’s top freshman a year later, and was clearly viewed as the program’s star in waiting. Walker filled out that image in year two, leading the team by example, and on the score sheet, with 30 points in 37 games. Like the team, he went through a slump in November, but heated up in the second half, putting up 11 points in one seven-game stretch in late January and early February while the Gophers were making their run at the top of the Big Ten standings.
Breakout Player -- If you had not heard of Scott Reedy when he got to the U of M a few years ago, that’s understandable. He is a rare Minnesota kid who got to the college ranks without playing high school hockey in the state, and has been the consummate “under the radar” guy. If you didn’t expect the junior to lead the Gophers in goals with 15, that is also excusable. But Reedy put the puck in the net in the team’s season opener and kept doing it consistently all season, despite missing two games to injury.
Top Rookie -- A year ago at this time, when he was still a member of the Fargo Force, Ben Meyers watched the college teams practice at Scheels Arena before the NCAA West Regional and even as a spectator he displayed the intensity for the game that translated perfectly to a college rink. It is not easy to recall a time Meyers took a shift off as a freshman, finishing third on the team offensively and tying for the Gophers’ lead in power play goals with four.
Comeback Player -- Gophers junior goalie Jack LaFontaine admits there were some tough times two years ago when, after making it to the 2018 NCAA Frozen Four with Michigan, the Wolverines cut him loose. He found a new hockey home at the U of M, and after an uneven start to his time in maroon and gold, LaFontaine became the team’s mainstay in goal. He started the last nine games of the season, finishing with a respectable .919 saves percentage and a 9-9-6 overall record.
Room for Improvement -- During his time at St. Cloud State, the Huskies’ power play that Motzko devised was as fun for fans to watch as it was frustrating for opponents to defend. While Motzko consistently praised this season’s Gophers for their puck movement when there was an opponent in the penalty box, the puck didn’t move into the other team’s net very often. The Gophers finished seventh in the Big Ten in power-play efficiency, scoring just 16.2 percent of the time with a man advantage. Although, in their final win over Notre Dame, the Gophers scored a pair of power-play goals, to close on a high note.
Play of the Year -- The odds were daunting as the third period began on Saturday night, February 15 at Compton Family Ice Arena on Notre Dame’s campus. The Irish led 1-0 and as one of the top defensive teams in the country, were expected to lock things down and sit on a one-goal lead, as Jeff Jackson’s teams do so well. A rare mistake by the Irish opened the door for the visitors, when an errant Notre Dame pass in the neutral zone landed right on the tape of Brannon McManus’ stick and keyed an odd-man rush. With one Notre Dame defender back, McManus carried the puck up the right side of the ice, then flipped a perfect no-look drop pass between his skates to Meyers, who was trailing the rush. Meyers shot high, using the Irish defender to screen goalie Cale Morris and hitting the upper left corner of the net to tie the game. The Gophers got a Blake McLaughlin power-play goal later in the third for a 2-1 win, and left South Bend tied atop the Big Ten standings.
The season ended with the Gophers sitting at 17th in the final Pairwise rankings, meaning that they would have needed to win the Big Ten playoffs to make their first NCAA playoff appearance since 2017. While we wait for college hockey, and all sports, to return, the optimist will note that their next scheduled games are less than 200 days away. The full schedule for 2020-21 has not been released yet, but we know the Gophers are scheduled to play in the annual Ice Breaker Tournament over the weekend of Oct. 9-10 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, along with Minnesota Duluth, Providence and Minnesota State Mankato.