MINNEAPOLIS -- There was an insistence among the Minnesota Gophers coach and players, despite all of the strangeness of the past five days, that it was business as usual on the rink.
But Friday turned out to be a night of important firsts for the Gophers, as they got their first win of what feels like a restart to their season.
Tristan Broz and Jackson LaCombe scored their first goals of the season, while Justen Close got the win in his first start in goal, as the Gophers skated to a 4-1 nonconference victory over Alaska at 3M Arena at Mariucci. It came after they lost their every-night starting goalie on Sunday, they lost two players to longer-term injuries last weekend, they had COVID make a run through their locker room, and they played with an "all hands on deck" lineup.
"I like what we've been doing in the second half," said Gophers coach Bob Motzko. His team has won three games and two exhibition games since the holiday break. "Obviously we had a lot of stuff happen this week, but I think that's times we're living in. You've just got to deal with it and move on."
Broz was playing in his 18th collegiate game and had been a healthy scratch twice before the holiday break, but has seemingly been on the brink of his first goal every game in the second half.
It was the first game for the Gophers (13-8-0 overall) since Sunday’s sudden, unexpected departure of Jack LaFontaine, who had been their mainstay in goal for the past two-plus seasons, to the NHL. Close, a junior making his first career start, had 14 saves for the win.
"It was different, obviously, not having Jack back there, but we all trust Closer. He's been here, grinding through three years of not really playing at all," said defenseman Ben Brinkman, who assisted on three of the four goals. "We're all excited for him. He's a great goalie as you saw tonight."
Blake McLaughlin and Matthew Knies added goals for the Gophers, who won their third game in a row. McLaughlin's goal was of the highlight reel variety, and was assisted by longtime linemate Sammy Walker. The assist gave Walker 100 points for his career.
"It's unbelievable," said Walker of joining the program's Century Club. "It's a huge honor with the great players that came before me and were able to do that. To be in that category is special."
The Gophers were without forwards Rhett Pitlick and Jaxon Nelson, both of whom are expected to miss several weeks with injuries. Defenseman Brock Faber, named to the U.S. Olympic team on Thursday, was unavailable as well on Friday. Defenseman Matt Denman dressed for the first time this season and saw his first action. And new backup goalie Owen Bartoszkiewicz was in uniform for the first time, having officially joined the Gophers just hours before the game.
The Gophers scored twice in the first period and twice in the third, but their coach felt they sagged in the middle 20 minutes and praised the McLaughlin-Walker combo for recapturing the momentum.
"We needed that energy in the third period because we got completely away from it in the second," Motzko said. "That line and all our lines really got going in the third period and put pressure on them."
Postgame comments from Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko, defenseman Ben Brinkman and forward Tristan Broz following a 4-1 win over Alaska on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Payton Matsui, a freshman from Lakeville, Minnesota, had the only goal for the Nanooks (5-15-1) who got 22 saves from starter Gustavs Grigals.
"It's always exciting for the Minnesota guys. He and (Matt) Koethe were jacked up for the game," said Nanooks coach Erik Largen, noting the two Twin Citians on his team. "It was cool to see Matsui finish off a rebound and good for him and his family."
The teams play again Saturday evening to conclude the series.
Minnesota 4, Alaska 1
First period — 1. MN, Tristan Broz 1 (Mike Koster), 13:53. 2. MN, Matthew Knies 8 (Ben Meyers, Ben Brinkman), 18:53. Penalties — Koster, MN (hooking), 11:35; Knies, MN (hooking), 19:26.
Second period — 3. AK, Payton Matsui 2 (Roberts Kalkis, Arvils Bergmans), 13:09, (pp). Penalties — Didrik Henbrandt, AK (holding), 1:59; Kalkis, AK (hooking), 12:40; Ryan Johnson, MN (interference), 12:02; Jonny Sorenson, MN (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:41.
Third period — 4. MN, Blake McLaughlin 6 (Brinkman, Sammy Walker), 5:15. 5. MN, Jackson LaCombe 1 (Brinkman), 15:26, (en). Penalties — Harrison Israels, AK (interference), 9:40; Jack Perbix, MN (slashing), 13:21; Perbix, MN (unsportsmanlike conduct), 13:31; Filip Fornaa Svennson, AK (slashing), 13:21.
Shots on goal — MN 7-8-11—26; AK 4-9-2—15. Goalies — Justen Close, MN (15 shots-14 saves); Gustavs Grigals, AK (26-22). Power plays — MN 0-of-3, AK 1-of-5. Referees — David Marcotte, Kenny Anderson. Linesmen — Nicholas Bradshaw, Samuel Shikowsky. Att. — 7,624.