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Gophers head into the break feeling the holiday spirit

Ahead of the Gophers closing out the series at Michigan this past Saturday, coach Bob Motzko heard an unbelievable statistic: His team had lost just once in its past six games.

That seemed impossible to Motzko, who made the radio broadcasters who brought it up pull out the receipts/stat sheets for proof. It was true, but with three overtime losses that officially count as ties mixed in there, it certainly didn’t feel like a successful streak.

“We just need a signature win right now,” is what Motzko told his team at Michigan, the last two games before the holiday break. “We just need a win where we feel great.”

Well in the spirit of the season, the Gophers asked and received, notching a big 4-3 victory against then-No. 15 Michigan on Saturday. The result also moved the Gophers into the 20th spot according to USCHO.com’s pairwise rankings, which is how the NCAA selects its 10 at-large bids to the championship tournament after the six conference champions earn automatic berths.

The tournament is still more than three months away, but the first half of the college hockey season has officially come to a close. And Motzko is feeling very positive about where his team stands so far. 

“I’m very happy to be going into the break with that feeling right now,” Motzko said Monday. “There was an emotion [after Saturday’s victory]. You get a few of them in a season, and sometimes you’ve got to even wait a couple seasons before you get a win that’s really, where there’s a special feeling in the locker room, and we had it Saturday.”

While Motzko said his team isn’t quite self-actualized yet and has much more improving to do, he has a sense the squad is creeping toward that goal off the back of some great goaltending from junior Mat Robson. And the team has 20 days before the Ferris State series begins Dec. 28 to build off that. 

Though, really, most of that time will be spent away from the rink. The team met briefly Monday just to congratulate forwards Sampo Ranta and Sammy Walker for earning the chance to make the World Juniors team for Finland and the U.S., respectively. If all goes well there, neither will be around for that Ferris State series and possibly even the Penn State series the next weekend. 

The team won’t reconvene until Christmas night to start preparing for Ferris State. But this two-week layoff won’t be like the one the Gophers experienced early in this season, when they played two exhibition games in the second and third weeks of the year. 

“That’s the thing that, that first break we had that just came for us, and it hurt us. This one, we’re all on break,” Motzko said. “Nobody gains, and nobody loses. Now it’s just, we have a good feel.”

Personally, Motzko said he’ll use the time to recruit, so he will be on the road for much of this break. But he already knows he’ll be antsy to start up again as soon as the presents are unwrapped Christmas morning. 

“I was telling the team today that I’ve seen crazy stuff on second halves [of the season] where a player sitting there with two goals ends up leading the conference in scoring,” Motzko said. “Or you don’t have the start you wanted to have, and you kind of hit the restart button, and all of a sudden, it just takes off. You see that a lot.

“It starts to heat up. We’re playing for marbles now.”

Side note on Sammy:

Motzko said Walker’s call-up to the U.S. youth team camp was “well-deserved” for maybe the “most consistent” and “most improved” player on his team this year. He hopes both Walker and Ranta bring back confidence to the Gophers after having the opportunity to potentially play for their countries and can approach the second half freed from that at-times stressful experience to really make an end-of-season surge.

Gophers hockey completes turnaround to split series with St. Lawrence

 

 

Freshman winger Nathan Burke battled a month-long bout with mono that set him well far behind his teammates in terms of fitness to start the season. But in just his third game this season, he left the ice the hero.

Burke scored his first and second goal for the Gophers on Saturday in a revenge 3-0 victory against St. Lawrence to split the series at 3M Arena at Mariucci in front of an announced 8,098 fans. The Gophers lost 4-3 in overtime on Friday.

The Arizona native redirected junior defenseman Tyler Nanne’s pass in the first period and then pulled off a spin-o-rama in the second for the win. Senior goaltender Eric Schierhorn called it SportsCenter-worthy. Fellow freshman Sammy Walker then added a third on a breakaway with just a couple minutes to play.

“It’s exciting. We’ve been working hard in practice, and after last night, it was definitely cool to bounce back and help my team out,” Burke said. “I have great linemates, Walker and [Blake] McLaughlin. They did all the work, I just happened to go to the right places. So it definitely felt amazing. I don’t know. I’m kind of speechless about it.” 

Schierhorn also earned the shutout, stopping all 12 of St. Lawrence’s shots. The Gophers, meanwhile, shot off 31.

“I mean, our guys were dialed in,” Schierhorn said. “I’ll take a shutout whenever I can get it. Not knocking St. Lawrence: that was probably the easiest shutout that I’ve had in college hockey. But that’s a credit to my team.”

Coach Bob Motzko was disappointed in Friday’s step back, but seemed optimistic Saturday was a firm turnaround.

“I hope that this is another staple another stamp of a direction turn in our compete level,” Motzko said. “We had to make some changes. We made some changes in our lineup. We made some changes in our lines. But they made the change in how they were going to play.”

Mittelstadt returns to Minnesota as a pro

And now for last year’s No. 21 (Burke wears it now) on the Gophers and former Eden Prairie star Casey Mittelstadt. He was in town with the Buffalo Sabres for the first time and beat the Wild earlier Saturday in St. Paul. But the forward shared some thoughts ahead of that game.

He said his parents rented out a bar for 85 family members and friends while another 30 of just Mittelstadt’s friends were coming to the game. Unfortunately, that didn’t include any of his Gophers besties.

“They’re not going to be here, which is tough, but it’s good, though. I talk to all of them quite a bit. I talk to them pretty much every day, I guess, my best buddies on that team. So I keep in touch with them a lot,” Mittelstadt said. “When I get home during the summer, I’ll see all of them. They all live at school. So I’ll see them all quite a bit. So it’ll be fun to catch up with them for sure.”

Mittelstadt said his Buffalo teammate Kyle Okposo has been a big help in his adjustment to the pros, as Okposo also left the Gophers program early and has embraced the role of being Mittelstadt’s mentor. There’s a few other Minnesotans and former Gophers Mittelstadt also idolizes, which he revealed when reflecting on the upcoming high school hockey state tournament.

“For a young hockey player like me growing up, it was pretty much everything. I think that’s what we always dreamed of,” he said. “Those high school players became celebrities, I think. They were pretty much even with an NHL player. Guys for me were, like, Kyle Rau and Nick Leddy. They played at Eden Prairie, and I put them even up with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, guys like that.”