Lost amid the lighthearted hubbub of a football coach slapping on goalie gear and taking his turn as a practice netminder was one of the reasons P.J. Fleck visited the Gophers men’s hockey team.
“We’re coming off two losses, and we don’t feel great right now,” Motzko said Tuesday. “We’ve got some work to do in our program, and we know it.”
Whether Fleck’s words of stick-to-it-iveness will translate into victories remains to be seen, but they can’t hurt for a hockey team that started a tough, six-week stretch by being swept by two-time reigning national champion Minnesota Duluth last weekend. Now comes an undefeated opponent, fifth-ranked Notre Dame, for the Big Ten-opening series Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
Motzko is hopeful his team, which includes 11 freshmen, can replicate what Fleck’s young squad accomplished last year by winning three of its final four games and carrying that over to an 8-0 record so far this year.
“There just became a point where they drew a line in the sand and said, ‘No more. We’re going to play,’ ” Motzko said of the football Gophers. “We’re going to have moments where our talent really shows. And we’re going to have moments where our youth really shows. There’s going to be a day when we draw a line in the sand and start to play a much stronger brand of hockey.”
After last Friday’s 5-2 home loss to UMD that he termed “a stinker,” Motzko saw a much better effort in a 2-0 loss at Duluth the next night. The test of the Gophers’ growth continues against a veteran Notre Dame team that features a pair of senior forwards in Cal Burke and Mike O’Leary, who are tied for second nationally in scoring with 11 points, and a senior goalie in Cale Morris, who led the Irish to an NCAA runner-up finish in 2018 and was the Mike Richter Award winner as the nation’s top goalie that year.
“You look at their top four scorers — senior, senior, junior, senior,” Motzko said. “They’re not going to have a slow start. They’re too veteran-ish and have too good a coaching staff. We have to fight to be there.”
Freshman defenseman Ryan Johnson is an example of a Gophers player growing into his role. The first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres has displayed strong puck-moving skills and has a pair of assists, but he knows he has room to improve.
“We’re growing pretty much every game, which is good,” Johnson said. “We’re learning lessons from the games.”
Motzko sees the beginning of Big Ten play as something that can help his team’s focus. “There’s a mood change — a seriousness now that, ‘OK, we’re in league play.’ It’s something that you can wrap your arms around,” he said. “The have a trophy for the champion. Now you’re playing for marbles.”