Bob Motzko could tell from the first puck drop between the Gophers and Minnesota Duluth that this was "a man's game."
The looks his five freshman forwards threw over their shoulders to him throughout the game only reinforced that conclusion, their eyes silently beseeching with, "Coach, I've never been in this before."
"That's where your older guys needed to step up," Motzko said. "And say, 'This is how it's done.' "
UMD — its top-two lines filled with seniors or fifth-year players, plus another three on defense — did that to perfection. And the bigger, stronger, faster Bulldogs were relentless as they beat the Gophers 5-3 on Friday in front of an announced crowd of 9,016 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The No. 4 Gophers (3-2) mostly held their own early this season despite every opponent having an edge in experience. No. 5 Duluth (4-1), for example, has been to the Frozen Four four of the past five years, missing 2020 because of the pandemic cancellation.
But Friday, the Gophers looked shaky from the start, giving up two Duluth goals within the first eight minutes: a quick faceoff rebound play from an unmarked Blake Biondi fewer than two minutes into the period, before Quinn Olson smacked a slapshot past Gophers goaltender Jack LaFontaine from the top left circle.
"I think they had 10 shots to our zero," winger Matthew Knies said. "So it wasn't, it wasn't good enough from us."
A shimmer of hope came from defenseman Mike Koster with about a minute left in the period. Running the point on the Gophers' first power play, he directed a one-timer from the blue line into Ryan Fanti's net.
The Bulldogs basically replayed that performance in the second period, again scoring twice in 10 minutes. Motzko called the defense on the first goal "atrocious," after Owen Gallatin slid on one knee past the left circle to score. That happened after Koster took a backcheck into the boards and left for the rest of the game with an apparent shoulder injury.
Duluth made it 4-1 when Wyatt Kaiser dived to score on his own rebound after bouncing the puck off LaFontaine's helmet. Knies ricocheted a backhander past Fanti late in the period to keep the margin within two.
If Motzko thought the third goal was hard to watch, the Bulldogs' final one was even more cringeworthy. The offense looked discombobulated on just its second power play of the game, ending it prematurely with a Sammy Walker slashing penalty. Ben Meyers then stacked on a holding call to give Duluth a 5-on-3 advantage. Just four seconds of that was all Casey Gilling needed to tap in an easy goal.
The Gophers managed some redemption, scoring 44 seconds later. Blake McLaughlin set up Grant Cruikshank with a one-on-one, and Cruikshank beat Fanti, who saved 18 of 21 shots.
"They just outworked us," Cruikshank said, adding his team played "soft."
Motzko's analysis was more pointed. He graded his team's battle level as a D-minus compared to the "world-class" defending of Duluth. And that didn't fall on LaFontaine, who saved 18 of 23 shots with only the second goal being his fault.
The coach attributed much of the offensive woes — poor shot selection, losing faceoffs — to playing from behind for so long. He couldn't really explain how his defense — which doesn't have any freshmen — went from giving up breakaways and odd-man rushes in the first several games to failing to mark opponents in this one.
"I'm really disappointed with our older guys because they needed to have much, much better tenacity," Motzko said. "… We have made so many glaring defensive mistakes, and a lot of them with our older guys, from the very first weekend.
"We've played five games and given up far too many goals, too many easy goals. We need to get on top of that."