As someone whose formative years came in the 1960s, Bob Motzko was exposed to the Western genre in movies and on TV. Given that, it's not out of the ordinary to hear the Gophers men's hockey coach use the phrase "riding high in the saddle" when describing a player who's exuding confidence.
Judging by the first four weeks of the season, it appears Motzko has a roster full of Wyatt Earps on his side.
The fourth-ranked Gophers on Wednesday night put the exclamation point on a seven-day, four-game road trip with a 4-0 drubbing of No. 5 Michigan to finish a sweep in Ann Arbor. With that, Minnesota has the following:
• An 8-0 record, the program's longest undefeated, untied start in 33 years.
• The status of never trailing for one second in any of those eight Big Ten games.
• A perfect penalty kill (17-for-17) and a power play operating at 29.0%.
• And a goalie in Jack LaFontaine who leads the nation in every major category among those who've played four or more games.
"Just to be around these guys — their work ethic, their camaraderie, how close they are — it's a special group," Motzko said. "I've been telling you that for a while, and maybe there's a little validation to it now."
That validation comes from a team that's building on the promise it showed in the second half last season, when it won the Mariucci Classic to start an 8-2 run and advanced to the Big Ten tournament semifinals before the coronavirus pandemic prompted the NCAA to shut down winter sports. This fall, the Gophers picked up where they left off while navigating the challenges of COVID-19.
Though the virus scuttled the chance for nonconference tests against regional rivals North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State Mankato, the Gophers have handled the schedule in front of them with balance and precision. They withstood Penn State's shoot anytime approach, patiently dealt with Ohio State's grinding style, aced their first road test at Michigan State, and adapted to absences to subdue Michigan. Twenty-four Big Ten points available, 24 taken.
"It's an unbelievable feeling, for our team, our coaching staff and our fans," senior center Scott Reedy said. "It's the 100th season of Gopher hockey, so there's a lot more to it than just the guys in the locker room."
Plenty of contributors
Reedy, who led the Gophers with 15 goals in 2019-20, has done much of the heavy lifting on offense. His six goals are tied for the national lead, and he paces the country with four game-winners. Nearly as important has been his work in the faceoff circle, where he leads the team with a .575 success rate (61 wins-45 losses).
Ben Meyers, a 22-year-old sophomore center, has taken big strides this season. His nine points on four goals and five assists are tied with Reedy for the team lead, and he's taken the most draws, going 88-69 (.561). Sophomore Jaxon Nelson (48-38, .558) and junior captain Sammy Walker (46-49, .488) have been key in the circle, too. It's tough for opponents to spend time in Gophers zone when they're chasing the puck.
"We've got four lines," LaFontaine said, "and we can go all night long."
Balance has been important because the usual top line of Walker centering Blake McLaughlin and the injured Brannon McManus hasn't fully taken flight. Walker scored Wednesday, giving him three goals and two assists, while McLaughlin has been stuck on two assists. McManus (lower body) is expected back after the holiday break.
Surging is junior forward Sampo Ranta, who had a goal and two assists in the Michigan series and did so in the gritty areas.
"It's like Ranta is finding a new toy," Motzko said. "For the first two years, he wanted to spend all his time outside on the dots, shooting. Now he's getting points right where we told him he has to be, and he's just got a smile."
Defense and goaltending
The Gophers navigated the Michigan series without defensemen Ryan Johnson, Jackson LaCombe and Brock Faber, who are in training camp with the U.S. National Junior team. Up stepped freshman Mike Koster, who scored his first career goal Wednesday.
"He stood tall this week when the spotlight was on him," Motzko said.
Making it all hold up is LaFontaine, the transfer from Michigan who stopped 67 of 68 shots in the series, giving him a 1.00 goals-against average and .965 save percentage this season. LaFontaine's emotions came out in tears of joy when his teammates saluted him after the game.
"[Yost] is a very special place for him to play," Reedy said. "He had his ups and downs here, and he took his talents to the U of Minnesota. We're so thankful to have him."
The remainder of the Big Ten schedule has yet to be released, though a resumption near Jan. 1 is expected. Motzko knows things won't always go this smoothly, but he's eager to find out if his team can keep riding high in the saddle.
"I'm not surprised how we're playing. I knew we could play this way," he said. " … We're not going to run the table; it never happens in hockey. But we just want to keep getting better and pushing forward.''