Which came first: the confidence or the game-winning goals? Gophers forward Justin Kloos can make an argument either way, pointing out he couldn’t have scored six winners this season without a healthy dose of self-esteem — and that he becomes more sure of himself every time he tallies a deciding goal.
His teammates, and coach Don Lucia, don’t bother with such philosophical quandaries. They care only that Kloos is capping a superb Gophers career with his most prolific season ever. The senior captain enters this weekend’s series at Michigan with a career-high 17 goals, and his six game-winners are tied for the most in the nation.
Kloos’ knack for scoring critical goals dates to his days at Lakeville South, where he won the Mr. Hockey crown in 2012. He scored his first college game-winner in the 2014 NCAA West Regional — sending the Gophers to the Frozen Four in his freshman season — and netted the goal that gave the Gophers the Big Ten tournament title in 2015. While Kloos has provided quantity this season, including six goals in the past six games, it’s the quality of his play in game-deciding moments that has given the biggest boost to the fifth-ranked Gophers.
“I’ve maybe grown into it a little bit in the latter half of my college career,” said Kloos, the Gophers’ second-leading scorer with 39 points. “Definitely when I was in high school and juniors, I was in those positions a lot. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted the puck, and now, it’s kind of my turn as a Gopher.
“Being able to score a few of those is good for your confidence. But also, if you feel your game is in the right place, you might play with a little more confidence and pump in a few of those game-winners. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to do that lately.”
A second-year captain, Kloos has proven he can score in any situation. He has three shorthanded goals, tied for fourth in the nation, and five on the power play. One goal came in overtime, one was unassisted, and the three he scored against Northeastern in November gave him his second career hat trick.
The center for the Gophers’ high-powered top line has combined with wingers Tyler Sheehy and Rem Pitlick for 46 goals. The trio doesn’t have much size — Kloos is listed at 5-9, and each of his wingers at 5-10 — but all are speedy, savvy players.
Lucia said that ability to make plays in a fast-paced environment has made Kloos an elite college player, which in turn lifts the team. He has at least one point in 24 of the Gophers’ 32 games this season, and they are 18-4-2 when he has a point.
“He’s the kind of guy who’s always thrived in the big moments, going back to high school and youth hockey, and it’s no different here,” Lucia said. “He’s had a great career. He’s a tremendous leader, and he’s one of those guys that when the game is on the line, he wants the puck on his stick. He wants to be out there and make a difference.”
As a high school senior, Kloos led the state in scoring with 103 points, and he topped the Gophers with 16 goals as a freshman. The team’s most valuable player last season, he had seven game-winning goals in his previous three seasons.
Kloos has nearly equaled that total 32 games into his senior campaign. In the past four games, he has scored two winning goals, as well as the goal that sent the Gophers to overtime at Penn State before he set up Pitlick for the winner. Forward Vinni Lettieri said Kloos is an effective scorer in part because he isn’t consumed by it.
“When he’s in the defensive zone, he cares about defense first,” Lettieri said. “He doesn’t play just an offensive game, he plays all three parts of the rink. And he has a great shot and great hockey sense, so when he has the puck on his stick, there’s a good chance it’s going in.”
Kloos has 62 goals and 84 assists for 146 points in 149 career games, ranking him 31st on the Gophers’ all-time scoring list. His aim is to keep climbing the charts as the stakes rise in the final weeks of the season.
“We have plenty of guys who want the puck when it matters most, who want to make the difference when it comes to winning or losing,” he said. “When you can be that guy for your team, it’s a great feeling.”