Just more than a week ago, coach Bob Motzko shared his optimism for the second half of the Gophers men's hockey season. All the nagging injuries that had plagued players to start the year had healed, the team had avoided any COVID-19 diagnoses, and while the Olympics would likely take a handful of players away for a month or so, an NCAA berth seemed assured.
All of that, though, is no longer the case.
Forwards Jaxon Nelson and Rhett Pitlick are both out with injuries. Nelson's timeline is at four to five weeks and Pitlick's at two to three. There have been some positive COVID tests after the series sweep at Michigan State this past weekend. And No. 1 goaltender Jack LaFontaine made a shocking move Sunday heading to the NHL.
And while the U.S. Olympics roster hasn't officially come out, linemates Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies, as well as defenseman Brock Faber, reportedly have received invites.
"We're going to know in March and April and how the history is going to play out," Motzko said. "… Our job is to try to be as successful as we can, and you've got to adapt to all this stuff."
When the Gophers face Alaska in a rescheduled nonconference series this weekend, the team will be down four players and a staff member, the coach said Tuesday. Teams can field 19 skaters and three goalies every game, and with 25 currently on the roster — including only two netminders in junior Justen Close and freshman Brennan Boynton — every available player will be in the lineup.
Everyone — minus Nelson, who will need surgery, and Pitlick — should return by next week. And Motzko is looking to add a third goalie soon, with the school semester starting next week. One option for that slot could be Owen Bartoszkiewicz, a Gophers commit for next season who currently plays in the USHL.
The Gophers won't be the only team "getting knocked in the shorts" by these personnel obstacles, as Motzko put it. And the coach hopes when it comes to postseason decisions, there will be some subjectivity allowed, especially for those squads losing players to the Olympics.
"We're going to have a stretch of six hockey games [without the full roster]," Motzko said. "We've got enough guys to fight through those six games. I'm convinced of that."
Meyers earned the Big Ten conference's First Star of the Week honor for his five-point performance at Michigan State. He scored four goals and added one assist in those two games, though he also tallied three more goals and another assist in the two exhibition games against St. Thomas and the U.S. Under-18 team earlier that week.
Meyers leads the team with 23 points through 20 games and matched his career-high with three points in the Friday game against the Spartans.
"He kind of does this every second half where he gets a little giddy-up in his game, and he's awful special," Motzko said. "He was so hampered with his injury in the first half. … You just felt for him the first half because he couldn't do the things he wanted to do. And the minute that thing healed up, he's a different player, and now he's just got it shifted into gear."