The Gophers loaded onto a bus the Thursday night before the series at Ohio State three weeks ago, en route to a nice restaurant for a team dinner, as per first-year coach Bob Motzko’s new tradition.
Or so they thought.
Instead, the bus drove past several upscale establishments, eventually pulling into the big parking lot of a bowling alley.
“A couple of us older guys at the back of the bus were like, ‘Man, how cool would that be if we got to go bowling?’ ” senior Jack Ramsey recalled. “And Coach says, ‘All right, we’re getting off.’ And we’re like, ‘No way!’ ”
No fancy meals or dressy outfits needed for this outing. The Gophers bowled, played arcade games and ate from a buffet, essentially reliving the halcyon Chuck E. Cheese’s days of youth. And combined with some tweaks to the playing style on the ice, the Gophers went on to sweep then-No. 2 Ohio State.
Since, they’ve won five of their past six games — all against ranked teams — heading into the Big Ten quarterfinals this weekend against Michigan at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The stakes are clear: Win the series, or the season’s done. But the Gophers have realized their potential just in time for the Big Ten tournament, knowing a conference title is their only way to the NCAA tournament. Who’s to say if bowling was the catalyst? But the Ohio State series was undoubtedly a turning point.
“That might have relaxed some of the nerves, even brought more camaraderie to the table than we already had,” Ramsey said. “For four years, that’s one of my best road trip memories, for sure.”
Motzko said after a bad sweep at Penn State the previous weekend, he wanted to change the feeling around his team for the final road swing of the regular season. And one quality he’s observed from this squad throughout the year: His players love games. Motzko ends every practice with small games, and the energy level is always at its highest then. In fact, he has a hard time convincing his players to wrap it up and get off the ice.
So he was pretty sure the team would be very excited about a surprise bowling foray.
“They were just like little kids. They just wanted to play games,” Motzko said. “We just wanted a little late-in-the-season diversion.”
The coach’s twist might have most fooled Rem Pitlick, who said it was the only time he ever actually looked at the meal plan. Pitlick was “so pumped” for the Brazilian steakhouse Rodizio Grill that turned out to be a red herring.
Along with that off-ice fun, though, there were some serious on-ice changes. Motzko employed a more defensive structure at Ohio State that he termed simply playing smarter. The Gophers sat back and let the game come to them instead of trying to force opportunities. Brent Gates Jr. said it has led to more turnovers for the opponents and more transition openings for the Gophers.
“It kind of clicked with all the guys that that’s actually a pretty fun way to play and actually led to a good amount of offense for us,” Gates said. “It worked. So we’ve been kind of sticking to that.”
The new mind-set has also given more support to the Gophers’ inexperienced defense, its one weak spot the whole season. And while the offense has usually been potent, this stretch also has seen more depth scoring on the team beyond just the productive top line of Pitlick, Gates and Tyler Sheehy.
In the Gophers’ past six games, the team has scored 22 goals from 14 players. Strong special teams, including the seventh-best power play in the nation at 24.2 percent, have also propelled the team to this dominate streak.
Also still dominating: bowling. Sheehy said several players went bowling again Tuesday night, with Tyler Nanne and Darian Romanko even supplying their own balls and shoes for the occasion.
“We’ve been hanging out even more since [Ohio State],” Sheehy said. “Kept the bowling thing going. See how many wins we can get with that.”