Bob Motzko is a little uncomfortable talking about the future.
The second-year Gophers coach furrows his brow and tightens his shoulders. But the hand-wringing and lip-pursing isn’t from worry.
The underclassmen-heavy Gophers predictably struggled early in the season, finishing the first half at 5-9-4. But since coming out of that three-week December break, they’ve won seven of eight, including five consecutive. Suddenly, the team that ranked around 30th in the PairWise rankings has climbed to No. 18 and is just one point out of first place in the Big Ten.
Even better, the Gophers (12-10-4, 7-5-4-3 Big Ten) control their fate with two games in hand, as does this weekend’s opponent, Michigan State (13-12-1, 9-6-1). The Spartans are in a three-way tie for third place with the Gophers.
With 16 teams making the NCAA tournament — the six conference tournament champions plus the next 10 highest PairWise-ranked teams — if the Gophers win at least seven of their final eight games in the regular season, they should make their first national tournament since 2017.
But Motzko really doesn’t want to think about all that.
“The best thing to do is not to overanalyze it,” Motzko said. “… Our messaging [to the players] and their messaging back to us is, if we’re digging ourselves out or climbing forward, it’s [because] we want to win every series. We’ve talked about college hockey is really a miniseries of playoffs.”
The Gophers have already closed out the season series with Ohio State and Wisconsin, marking those as wins. With Michigan State, the Gophers are 1-1 after their only loss of the second half of the year, a 4-1 setback Jan. 10.
Minus that, though, this Gophers team has done a complete about-face since the fall. A combination of a tough schedule and having 19 freshmen and sophomores on the team made the beginning rough. The holiday break served as a mental reset and helped turn those early glimpses of what this team could be into a reality.
The Gophers made a similar late-season push in Motzko’s first year, but sophomore Blake McLaughlin said the energy is different this time. Goalie Jack LaFontaine said it’s similar to his sophomore season at Michigan, when the team was “awful” before the holidays until something clicked, and the Wolverines ended up in the Frozen Four.
Motzko was a little lost for words trying to describe what’s going on in the locker room, the special vibe his players share. But LaFontaine knew exactly how to characterize it.
“We’re like brother bear cubs,” LaFontaine said. “Practice time, everyone will get in each other’s faces. We’ll fight. We’ll jab at each other. We get off the ice, we’re buddies right away. We leave it all on the ice. We’ve got some fierce competitors on this team. So that’s why I think we’re all brothers because, you ever get sick of your brother like that, you want to punch him in the face.”
But in the end, it’s all love. And that even comes out on the ice, too, such as how even amid the worst performances for this team, LaFontaine said the players have never turned on each other or totally collapsed. They were on the wrong end of some ugly losses in November — 8-2 and 6-3 to Penn State, 9-3 to North Dakota — all at home.
Still, they hung together. The defense and goaltending improved. After giving up more than three goals per game, they have given up 1.7 goals over the past six games.
And now that the Gophers are winning, everything is easier, from putting in more time in the weight room to keeping the momentum going.
Well, maybe not everything. Talking about all the good around the Gophers has the team literally knocking on wood and metaphorically covering their ears.
“Ultimately, we want to be standing at the end of the year as one of the best teams in college hockey, if not the best in college hockey,” Motzko said. “Do I like where we’re going? Absolutely. … We’re pointing in the right direction.”