MINNEAPOLIS -- When it all came to an abrupt halt, the Minnesota Gophers were packing for a one-game road trip.
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, after every other college hockey conference had cancelled its season due to the rapidly-spreading coronavirus, the Gophers were roughly 20 hours from getting on a plane bound for State College, Pa., and their fifth game of the season -- a Big Ten playoff semifinal -- against regular season champ Penn State.
The Gophers were 0-3-1 versus the Nittany Lions last season, and the program last won a game at Pegula Ice Arena on Feb. 4, 2017, going 0-7-1 there in their last eight. But coach Bob Motzko and his Gophers team badly wanted to get on that plane for one more crack at what has become a nemesis.
“They lost a lot of players off their team last year. That’s not the same team, but yet, they’ve kicked our butt the last handful of years,” Motzko said recently. “We felt we were closing the gap. I did watch our games from a year ago recently, and we were closing the gap. But we hadn’t closed it. They were a better hockey team than us, and rightfully they were the Big Ten regular season champ. But I’ll tell you, we wanted to play that game.”
Eight months later, Motzko and company will finally get a chance to face the Lions, opening the abbreviated college hockey season Thursday and Friday at home. While the story for the Gophers is that nine of their top 10 scorers and all of their goaltenders return, making Minnesota the coaches’ pick for the conference title, for the Lions it is more about starting over.
Seven of Penn State’s top 10 scorers and star goalie Peyton Jones are gone. But the Lions, known for a run-and-gun, shoot pucks from anywhere at any time style, are determined to not re-invent their character, even with so many new names in the lineup.
“Everybody knows we’ve lost a lot of great players and a lot of great leadership, but I think that when they do vacate, someone fills that in,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky. “There are guys that we feel great about that are now going to be given more opportunity than they had in the past, but the objectives stay the same. As far as our identity and how we play, we’re not changing.”
The preseason votes have been a confusing way to try and judge what the Lions will look like on the ice. The national polls have them in the top 10 in the country, and best in the Big Ten. The Big Ten coaches picked the Lions seventh in the seven-team conference, after correctly picking them to win their first title a year ago.
“The coaches were right about us last year. I hope they’re wrong about us this year,” Gadowsky said. “But do think that it speaks to the quality of the league...When you have a team that’s picked in the top 10 nationally but last in your league, I think it speaks to the quality of the whole league.”
For the Gophers players, there was disappointment on several levels when the 2019-20 season was cancelled, not only about the missing a chance to get to the NCAA tournament, but also about missing one more crack at the Lions on the way to what they fully expected would be games in April. While it is a new season with a few new Gophers players, they begin on a mission of finally closing that gap with the Lions.
“Everyone understands the issues we’ve had with Penn State and we have a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths with Penn State,” senior goalie Jack LaFontaine said. “There’s some unfinished business there for sure, and we’re not going to be holding back any punches.”
It will be quiet with very few fans inside the Gophers’ home rink, and on their road trips. But they will be back on the ice, with a chance to play hockey that not every program has this season. And for the Gophers, a chance to re-start essentially where they left off last March.
“I’m not going to use the word ‘cheated’ but we as a team feel like we left some good hockey on the table last year,” said LaFontaine. “Penn State was the team in the way of our goal of making the (NCAA) tournament and eventually winning a national championship. And there was that belief in that room.”
Between the dots
Get used to odd days and non-traditional start times in this most unique of college hockey seasons. Thursday’s season opener is a 7:30 p.m. start, while the Friday rematch begins at 3 p.m. Both of the Gophers-Penn State games will be televised by Big Ten Network. On radio, Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco, who first started calling Gopher hockey games in 1986, will be back behind the microphones for another season. In the metro area, games can be heard on 1130 AM/103.5 FM, and they can be streamed on iHeartRadio.
In accordance with state-mandated restrictions on attendance at indoor events, no student or general public tickets are currently being sold for Gophers hockey. U of M officials have said that in-person attendance at 3M Arena at Mariucci will likely be limited to family members of the teams. Current state guidelines in place due to the pandemic limit attendance to no more than 250 individuals.
A recent ranking of the top 100 players to watch in college hockey, compiled by The Hockey News and Sports Illustrated, included six Gophers total, and three Gophers defensemen among the top 22.