Off to a 4-0 start and up to No. 5 in the national polls, the Gophers men’s hockey team takes that momentum on the road for the first time in the 2020-21 season. The trip comes at the right time for coach Bob Motzko.
“Our guys are already packed. If we left today, they would be happy,’’ Motzko said Monday. “There’s something about hockey teams going on the road and bonding.’’
The Gophers left for East Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday for a Thursday-Friday series at Michigan State, and they’ll stay in the Wolverine State for a series against Michigan in Ann Arbor next Tuesday and Wednesday. While the monotony of practice and social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic has worked well for the Gophers — their record is spotless, and their roster hasn’t been ravaged by COVID-19 — a change in routine of taking their team-only “bubble’’ on the road is welcome.
“Everybody on our team has bought in on keeping ourselves in a bubble,’’ defenseman Matt Staudacher said. “My roommates, we basically hang out with each other all day. It’s basically: go to the rink, practice, work out, then go home, play cards and do our homework.
“It’s kind of a simple life right now,’’ Staudacher added, “but everybody’s buying into the fact that we need to stay socially distant from other people and be smart about our decisions. At the end of the day, all we want to do is play hockey and win.’’
Winning hasn’t been an issue so far for the Gophers, who used balance scoring and Jack LaFontaine’s shut-down goaltending to post sweeps over Penn State and Ohio State. A third aspect of Minnesota’s game might be the most impressive — a talented and quickly maturing blue line.
The defensive pairings of sophomores Staudacher and Jackson LaCombe, sophomore Ryan Johnson and freshman Brock Faber, and junior Ben Brinkman and freshman Mike Koster have combined for nine points and are a plus-12. It’s not surprising that a puck-mover such as Johnson, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2019, is tied for second on the team with three assists. It is surprising that the 6-1, 190-pound Staudacher, known more for his gritty, physical play, also has three helpers.
“He’s really good defensively and is putting up some points,’’ LaCombe said of Staudacher. “He’s easy to play with. He retrieves pucks well and always is there to support you.’’
Said Staudacher of LaCombe: “Our games complement each other really well. He’s more of a playmaking, puck-moving defenseman, while I stay at home and take care of the garbage.’’
Giving that Minnesota blue line an instant boost of energy has been Faber and Koster, who’ve quickly adjusted to the college game.
“Mikey and Fabes being freshmen, you can’t really tell,’’ Staudacher said. “They’re playing like they’re older guys. Fabes is just a good all-around player, and Mikey’s unreal with the puck. … Those two are huge additions to our ‘D’ corps.’’
The Gophers should expect a tighter-checking game on the NHL-sized ice sheet at Michigan State’s Munn Ice Arena than they saw in the first two series on the Olympic-sized ice at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Though the Spartans haven’t been Big Ten title contenders in Danton Cole’s three previous seasons as coach, they’ve improved in the conference each year.
“They’re a big, heavy team,’’ said Motzko, who is 3-5 against Michigan State at Minnesota. “ … They’re very well-coached, and all their games have been really tight. That’s what you can expect. You’re in for a fight.’’