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.