MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team was seemingly snubbed in the most recent announcement of the Big Ten’s three stars of the week, with players from Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan — and none from that unbeaten team in the State of Hockey — recognized by the league.
Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine, for one, has done about as much as anyone could expect between the pipes, with four wins in four starts (over just six days) and his first career shutout in Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Ohio State.
Still, if history is any guide, Gophers coach Bob Motzko might be tempted to give lefty sophomore Jared Moe his first start of the season next week when the team heads to Michigan State for a pair of games on Thursday and Friday.
In the four games the Gophers played in the state of Michigan last season (two at Michigan in November, two at Michigan State in January) LaFontaine was 0-1-1, while Moe went 2-0-0, and recorded his first career shutout with 28 saves versus the Spartans.
After Moe and LaFontaine had near-equal goaltending duties for the first half of last season, LaFontaine has started 13 consecutive games for the Gophers, dating back to both ends of a series at Notre Dame in February. With the compacted schedule to start this season, Motzko admits he was not expecting that LaFontaine would get the start in all of the first quartet of games, until the senior from suburban Toronto started winning, with no signs of fatigue. The Gophers defense has done a nice job of mitigating his workload as well.
In the first game with Ohio State, LaFontaine faced one shot in the opening 20 minutes. He said the quiet periods are actually tougher to deal with than getting peppered by an offense first opponent.
“Those first periods, to be quite honest with you, are hell for a goalie,” LaFontaine said. “One shot, five or six shots, those are very tough to get into it and feel the game. Every goalie is different and there has to be a reset button to keep you at ground zero and make sure you mind’s not wandering.”
After those four starts, LaFontaine has a .961 save percentage and a goals-against average of an even 1.00. By habit, Motzko usually does not let the goalies know who is starting until the night before or even the morning of a game. But after LaFontaine’s first career shutout, the coach gave one of those “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” hints to the media.
“If we would’ve been having a private conversation a few weeks ago, there’s no way I’d have thought we were going to play Jack in all four games,” Motzko admitted after LaFontaine blanked Ohio State. “But to watch him in the locker room and watch the way he practices, he’s an athlete. He’s a strong, well put-together athlete and he was in a groove...When you’re in a groove like that as a goaltender, you let him run with it.”
Moe finished his rookie year with a 7-5-1 record, with a .915 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average.
McManus’ status still uncertain
The bigger question for the Gophers as they head out on the road for the first time is the status of senior forward Brannon McManus, who leads the team in scoring. McManus did not play the third period of the last game, after suffering an apparent leg injury in a collision with an Ohio State player late in the second period.
After the game, Motzko said in a radio interview that it was “not good news, but not bad news” about McManus. Later in the week via text message, Motzko told The Rink Live they would know more about McManus’ status for the Michigan State and Michigan road games by early next week.
McManus played in all 37 of the Gophers’ games last season, finishing second on the team offensively with nine goals, 18 assists and 27 points.
Reedy plays the waiting game
After leading the Gophers with 15 goals last season, seeing senior forward Scott Reedy atop the team’s goals chart after four games is not overly surprising. He opened the scoring versus Ohio State in the series finale, cashing in after a long lead pass from McManus for Reedy’s third goal of the season.
And then, the waiting began.
Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik challenged the play, and asked the officials to look at the Gophers’ line change, thinking that they may have had too many men on the ice at the time McManus made the pass that sprung Reedy to the eventual goal. After a thorough review and a lengthy discussion, the goal stood as called on the ice for a 1-0 Gophers lead.
In the third period, with the Gophers up 2-0 and on a 5-on-3 power play, Reedy slipped another shot past Buckeyes goalie Tommy Nappier for an apparent three-goal advantage. Prior to his shot, defenseman Ryan Johnson had knocked the puck out of the air with his stick, causing the Buckeyes bench to yell for a high stick whistle. The play was called clean on the ice, but again, a review ensued.
This time, the play was overturned, as officials ruled Johnson’s stick was above crossbar height on the play, and the goal came off the board. As much as Reedy hated losing an apparent goal, he is getting used to the waiting.
“It’s tough, but I’m glad we had some cushion there and it wasn’t too hurtful or anything. We still had the 2-0 lead,” Reedy said of the overturned call. “It looks like every goal of mine is getting reviewed this year.”
All quiet in the House that Woog Built
After the U of M hosted sparsely-attended Big Ten playoff games in 2019 and 2020, with fewer than 2,000 tickets sold and wide swaths of empty seats inside 3M Arena at Mariucci, nearly every Gopher-hater in America has made some form of the joke about the team already being used to playing in an empty rink, and that Gophers fans began social distancing long before the pandemic hit.
For the first two home games versus Penn State, the U of M allowed up to 250 spectators in the building, and many of the team’s parents attended (there was no admission charge), giving them at least some cheering section when the Gophers scored. For the two games versus Ohio State, the more restrictive lockdown orders from Gov. Tim Walz were in place, meaning no fans were allowed in the building, and all 10,000 seats were empty.
While most players say that you don’t notice much on the other side of the glass once the game starts and your focus is on the ice, for the Gophers and their opponents, the quiet is notable.
“It’s a little surreal to start, when you really think about it, to walk out there and there’s not a soul in the building,” Rohlik said. “But when the puck dropped our guys were into it, we had energy, and in the end, it’s a hockey game. We’ve got to be pretty thankful that we’ve got the opportunity to play, fans or no fans, at this point.”
Like many other mostly-empty sports venues, the U of M sold cardboard cutouts to fans, so they could “attend” games virtually. Both sides of the player benches are flanked by a section that is mostly full of cutouts, with a cool nod to the program’s 100th season in row one. The “on the glass” seats just to the left of the Gophers bench are filled with cutouts of legends John Mayasich, Robb Stauber, John Mariucci, Nate Schmidt and Neal Broten.
High-end hockey gift idea
If you are one of those "lots of disposable income" types and have a hard-to-please hockey fan on your holiday gift list, there's a company based outside Detroit that has you covered.
Slot Mods is best known for re-creating high-end modern versions of the electric race car tracks that seemingly every Baby Boomer and Gen Xer found wrapped under the Christmas tree at one point in their childhood. For 2020, they have produced a classic tabletop hockey game reminiscent of the ones that helped an earlier generation dream of being Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur or Stan Mikita.
Called Legends of Hockey, the tabletop rink has been produced with incredible detail, including regulation size (to scale) dasher boards and Plexiglas, and the movable goalies even have a five hole. It comes with two Original Six teams of your choice, and extra team figures can be added for $25 per team. All of it is enclosed in an attractive oak box and they claim it is durable as well as playable.
Of course, all of that nostalgia and fun comes at a price. The tabletop game retails for $4,750.