As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and for the Gophers men’s hockey team, those opening looks haven’t been flattering.
In their eight series openers this season, the Gophers have a 2-4-2 record and have been outscored 31-19. Those performances on seven Fridays and Thanksgiving night are a big reason why coach Bob Motzko’s team is lugging a 5-8-3 overall record into this weekend’s series at No. 7 Ohio State.
What’s made matters more aggravating, the Gophers’ series-opening struggles often have come after a strong showing in their previous game. Momentum from three wins and one tie on Saturdays largely has disappeared by the time the following opener comes around.
That pattern was on display on Thanksgiving at 3M Arena at Mariucci, when the Gophers, fresh off a 4-1 win and a thrilling 3-3 tie against Wisconsin, absorbed a 9-3 drubbing at the hands of No. 3 North Dakota.
“The big story for us is that’s the third time we’ve done that on a Friday, after coming off a good weekend,” Motzko said. “… But true to form, we’ve responded the second night.”
Yes, the Gophers played much better Friday in a 3-2 loss to the Fighting Hawks, but the result was far from satisfying. For a rebuilding team that’s on pace for the program’s first losing season since 2009-10, the harsh reality of the math keeps hitting home: If you keep losing series openers, you’ll never get above .500.
Motzko labeled the 9-3 loss to North Dakota as a “stinker,” one of three series-opening losses by three or more goals at Mariucci this season. The others were a 5-2 loss to Minnesota Duluth, which came after a Gophers sweep of Niagara the previous weekend, and an 8-2 loss to Penn State, which came after Minnesota secured a tie and a win at Michigan the previous weekend.
Those three losses can be attributed in large part to the level of opponent — North Dakota is 12-1-2, Penn State is 11-4 and Minnesota Duluth is the two-time defending national champion. But Motzko sees much to correct with his team, and the first loss to UND reinforced that notion.
“I watched the film and thought I’d see this dominant performance against us,” he said. “We turned pucks over. We fumbled it five times on the goal line. And then you’re chasing the game. A couple moments we got back in it, but then we were chasing it. I didn’t like our demeanor.”
The next chance to change the narrative comes Friday at Ohio State (9-4-1), a team that’s won three consecutive games. Led by goalie Tommy Nappier’s 1.97 goals-against average, the Buckeyes are tied for second with Notre Dame in the Big Ten with 15 points, four more than the fifth-place Gophers.
Tyler Nanne, the Gophers senior co-captain, sees cohesion and focus as routes to fixing the team’s issues.
“We’ve just got to stick together,” he said Tuesday. “… Although we’re a young team, we’re good enough to win games, and we’ve got to hold each other accountable.”
Nanne expects improvement to come with experience.
“You want to win, and you want to win now, but you can’t win a championship in December. You can win it at the end of the season, and that’s what we’re building toward,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve got to start winning more games.”
Especially on Fridays.