Throughout the Gophers’ inconsistencies in a turbulent season, first-year coach Bob Motzko has remained steadfastly optimistic, reiterating each week how he likes this team, the players’ attitude and the program’s gradual improvement with the postseason in focus. And he would do it all with a smile and a laugh.
“I’ve been pretty positive all year, and I’m not really positive right now,” an expressionless Motzko said after the Gophers’ 4-2 loss to Michigan in front of an announced crowd of 8,238 at 3M Arena at Mariucci. “That was not a good game for us.”
The Gophers (10-12-4, 7-7-3 Big Ten) endured their second game in a row without an even-strength goal. Michigan (10-10-6, 6-6-4-2) pulled even with them for third place in the conference standings with 24 points.
After Saturday’s rematch, the Gophers have only three more series left in Big Ten play to determine playoff seedings and home-ice advantage. While Ohio State is locking up first place, only five points separate the other six teams.
“Sometimes, you just have to have good old-fashioned knee bend, and you’ve got to have a work ethic,” Motzko said. “We have to bend our knees, and we have to have more intensity on pucks. And when that doesn’t happen, it becomes a very long night for us.”
One small high point Motzko admitted to was the power play. Rem Pitlick scored early and Brannon McManus added another power-play goal in the third period. The unit has scored at least one goal in six consecutive games and ranked fifth in the nation at .258 entering this matchup.
But in the words of Tommy Novak — who has been running the power plays from the blue line since the holiday break — “Two is not enough.”
“Our guys know that we can be a good team when we’re playing on, and we can be pretty bad when we’re not,” the senior center said. “Our guys, we still have some hope in the locker room. And we’re looking to turn it around right now.”
Michigan tied it 1-1 on a first-period goal by Will Lockwood, but the second period was when the Wolverines “outcompeted [and] outbattled” the Gophers “pretty much everywhere, especially 5-on-5,” according to Novak.
Michigan outshot the Gophers 22-5 in that period, as the Gophers’ first shot didn’t register until five minutes remained. Garrett Van Wyhe and Michael Pastujov scored in the period for the Wolverines, who finished with a 45-26 advantage in shots on goal.
Michigan’s third goal was the one that most upset Motzko, as Pastujov flew through the neutral zone and took a shot through a gaggle of Gophers players to catch goaltender Mat Robson off guard (backup Eric Schierhorn was out sick). It also came after the Gophers’ penalty kill had successfully fought off three Wolverines power plays, including a 5-on-3.
While McManus’ goal at the 12:34 mark of the third period gave the Gophers some life, Michigan defenseman Nicholas Boka’s shorthanded wraparound four minutes later quickly snuffed that.
Motzko, at least, was still the same when it came to repeating himself — only about his team’s cons instead of its pros this time.
“I don’t want to say anything that I don’t mean to say or that I wouldn’t say tomorrow,” he said about whether his sunniness was gone for the season. “I’m not positive right now.”