There’s a different feeling around the Gophers hockey team.
The first half of the season was a grind, with losses and poor performances sapping the energy out of a young team. But then the Gophers reeled off their first back-to-back regulation wins of the season, beating Bemidji State and St. Cloud State to win the Mariucci Classic at home two weeks ago, reviving the 7-9-4 squad.
The confidence gained from that tournament propelled the Gophers as they prepared for a trip to East Lansing for a series this weekend vs. Michigan State, a team tied for second in the Big Ten with a 10-9-1 overall record.
“I still feel it in the dressing room right now,” junior goaltender Jack LaFontaine said. “Guys are coming on the ice 30 minutes early to work on their game. Guys are in the weight room after practice.
“Guys are just putting in the hours because they know what’s coming up, but they’re also excited for what’s coming up there. And no one’s afraid in there. People are working toward a common goal, and I think that’s exciting.”
Of the 27 players on the roster, 11 are freshmen and 19 are underclassmen. That’s made for some real growing pains. Seven overtime games, lopsided losses such as 8-2 to Penn State and 9-3 to North Dakota, an offense that averages just 2.65 goals per game and a defense that allows 3.15 goals per game without a single shutout.
But after a three-week holiday break, the Gophers won the Mariucci Classic by a combined 9-3 score. And they’ll need to continue that momentum to the end of the season for any hope of a Big Ten tournament run and possible NCAA tournament berth.
That isn’t quite so simple as stated, though. The Gophers took a weekend off after the Mariucci Classic and head on the road to face a tough Big Ten opponent.
Then they basically take another weekend off, with just an exhibition against the U.S. under-18 team on Jan. 17.
From there, it’s nonstop against conference foes, including road series at Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State.
“It’s the second half of the year now, so we’re making the push, and it’s all about momentum now,” said junior forward Scott Reedy, the Gophers’ leading scorer with nine goals. “… There’s a buzz, and we’ve just got a ride our wave.”
While taking just two victories against nonconference opponents and using them as a launchpad might seem like a stretch, coach Bob Motzko said that was exactly what his team needed.
“Where we’re at right now, those are two big wins for us. Huge wins for us,” Motzko said. “And we have to talk about it. Gophers hockey sitting at 7-9-4 — you’re going to look at that a little cross-eyed, and rightfully so.
“I mean, expectations in this program, we know what they are. But where we’re at in the development process, that was a big weekend. And so for us internally and how we’ve been battling through everything, we had to enjoy that. We had to feel good about that weekend. And it’s a building block.”
Motzko said he hopes the above-average number of goals scored that weekend shows his players their capabilities.
He also hopes LaFontaine can continue his hot streak at Michigan State. But with the break between games, his team is rested, minus a flu bug making the rounds, and ready to play.
“It’s playing with an edge, playing with, maybe, a mentality that we have something to prove,” LaFontaine said. “And that we’re not done with where we’re at. And I think we’re still taking monumental strides.”