MINNEAPOLIS -- New Minnesota Gophers goalie Lauren Bench knew her final season of college hockey would be like no other when she first watched the team’s pre-game hype video. One of the first clips she noticed from the montage showed the Gophers scoring a big goal in a game last season against Bemidji State. And in goal for the Beavers in the video was ... Lauren Bench.
“Even when I was at Bemidji it was one of my favorite videos to watch. Who doesn’t get excited when they’re talking about their national championships, that’s always really cool,” said Bench, a redshirt senior from Eagan, who transferred to the U of M over the summer after three seasons with the Beavers. “I’m watching the video and all of a sudden I’m seeing myself getting scored on playing against the Gophers last year. I thought that was funny.”
If her Dinkytown debut is any indication, Bench will not be visiting the place that is named on the back of her sweater much this season. After 60 minutes in maroon and gold, no video exists of her getting scored upon as a Gopher. Bench made 36 saves versus a dangerous Ohio State in the season opener for both teams, won 4-0 by the Gophers on Saturday afternoon at Ridder Arena.
“Obviously Lauren Bench was tremendous for us. Did a real nice job being very in control, not giving up rebounds and when she did our D was generally there to clear it,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “It was just a great start to the year.”
After playing prep hockey for Burnsville, Bench redshirted as a freshman at Bemidji State. She saw action in 73 games over the next three seasons for the Beavers, and earned a degree in chemistry, graduating last spring. Interested in pursuing a master’s degree and in playing one more season of college hockey, Bench entered the transfer portal and was contacted by Frost’s staff a short time later.
“We’ve seen Lauren a lot obviously, playing against Bemidji State, and she’s always done a nice job up there,” Frost said, noting that the Gophers lost a goalie to a career-ending injury last season, and had a hole to fill in the lineup. “We kind of knew that we were going to be looking for a goaltender with Alex Gulstene having her career ended by a concussion last year, otherwise she would’ve been a senior this year. Lauren, being a Minnesota kid, a Twin Cities kid in particular, and having one more year of eligibility, we just thought it made a lot of sense.”
After scoring on their first shot of the game, just 28 seconds in, the Gophers -- intentionally or not -- put things in Bench’s hands and were out-shot by the offense-first Buckeyes for much of the rest of the game. Frost praised the goalie not only for the shutout, but for the communication on the ice that has allowed her to become quickly comfortable with a new six-pack of defenders in front of her.
The season opener was a kind of re-set for both teams. The Buckeyes finished third in the WCHA last season, just behind the Gophers and league champ Wisconsin, but then beat both the Gophers and Badgers in overtime at Ridder Arena in the WCHA Final Faceoff, to claim the Ohio State program’s first conference playoff title. There was a NCAA playoff rematch between the Gophers and Buckeyes scheduled for March 14 at Ridder, with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four, before the pandemic caused all sports to be canceled 48 hours earlier. The Buckeyes, coached by former Gopher player and assistant coach Nadine Muzerall, seem to be an emerging power in women’s hockey, Saturday’s result notwithstanding.
“It’s become a really good, healthy rivalry and part of that is because Muzz was on our staff for so long,” Frost said. “Since she’s gotten there, they’ve turned into a top five team in the country. That’s obviously where we want to be each year, so there are some really good matchups.”
Good first impression for Motzko’s young defenders
You will not see the names Brock Faber or Mike Koster on the official score sheet from the Gopher men’s team’s first two games -- 4-1 and 3-2 wins over Penn State. But while not recording a point or a penalty, those freshmen defensemen left positive first impressions on the coaching staff, and on the few dozens of fans who got to watch them make their college debuts in person.
“They’re studs,” said alternate captain Brannon McManus. “I’ve said it from when we started practicing together. I knew right away that they were going to have a huge impact for our team. They come up in the play, they’re great defensively, they move the puck up the ice really quickly and make it easy for the forwards to get to work. This weekend was the first glimpse for everyone to see that, and I can’t wait to see what more they can do.”
Unlike a year ago, when Gophers coach Bob Motzko had a dozen newcomers on the roster and had to throw then-freshmen Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson into high-stress situations right away, he has enough blue line veterans this time around that the two rookies can be paired with more experienced defenders and learn the ropes gradually. Although neither of them appeared overly patient about getting heavily involved in the play right away.
“Loved ‘em,” was Moztko’s immediate reaction to what he saw from Faber and Koster in their first college games. “They’re kind of thoroughbreds. You let them run, and sometimes you’ve got to keep them in the right lane or push them into another lane, but they were so good in moments of the weekend, and you can see how much better they’re going to get.”
Koster, from Chaska, and Faber, from Maple Grove, both started with a wealth of experience at other levels of the game. Koster played parts of three season in the USHL and was a Mr. Hockey finalist as a senior at Chaska High School in 2019. Faber spent the last two seasons with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Michigan, and was called the best shutdown defenseman of his age in the world by his coaches there last season. Still, making your college debut versus an offense-first team like Penn State had to produce some stress. If so, it was well-disguised.
“When you start your first college game -- you think of Faber and Koster -- you’re awful nervous, and they didn’t show a lot of it,” Motzko said. “It’s just a fun group and we’re really going to look forward to watching that D-corps grow...We’ve got a lot of puck-movers back there.”
Among the team’s veteran defenders, Motzko called out sophomore Matt Staudacher, who had three assists on the weekend, for his work mentoring the freshmen. The coach looks to LaCombe and Johnson to be those “puck-movers” while Staudacher and Ben Brinkman are the more stay-at-home veterans. Blessed with depth in many areas this season, two more defensemen -- freshman Carl Fish and junior Robbie Stucker have not made it onto the team’s line chart yet.
In-arena COVID-19 protocols rightfully thorough
After eight months without college hockey, there was excitement -- and admittedly a little nervousness -- about walking into an arena on Thursday evening for the Gophers’ season opener. It is clear right from that first step into the 3M Arena at Mariucci lobby that the U of M is doing a thorough job of making every effort to keep the facility clean and as free of the virus as possible.
Everyone entering the building must first fill out an online questionnaire which asks if you have any symptoms or potential symptoms of COVID-19. Once completed, you are subject to a mandatory temperature check. If that comes up normal (I registered a chilly 96.6 degrees Fahrenheit) you may enter the building, where all but a few dozen of the 10,000 seats have been roped off by the arena staff.
The pressbox, which normally has seating for a few dozen members of the media, has been reduced to accommodate just five writers and the home radio crew. Broadcasters Frank Mazzocco, Wally Shaver and Pat Micheletti, who are speaking for much of the game and thereby potentially expelling aerosols, are separated by clear plastic dividers, so each has their own little penalty box from which to call the game.
There were fewer than 200 fans in attendance for both Penn State games, and there will be none allowed for the Ohio State games next week, per the executive orders from Gov. Tim Walz. Still, shortly after the final horn, teams bearing backpacks filled with disinfectant could be seen making their way through the stands, spraying down all of the areas where parents had been sitting during the games.
Motzko revealed last week that he contracted and recovered from COVID-19 in October, and with more than 20 Gophers football players missing from their game on Saturday due to the pandemic, it is clear that the hockey folks are taking this situation very seriously, and rightfully so.