When Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley opted to begin their NHL careers rather than return to the Gophers men's hockey team for the 2023-24 season, coach Bob Motzko knew replacing the productivity would require plenty of growth from his returning players.

After all, Knies and Cooley were Hobey Baker finalists who combined for 43 goals and 102 points last season — figures that accounted for 25.6% of the goals and 22.5% of the points for last year's NCAA runner-up.

The growth has come from several players but none more than junior left winger Rhett Pitlick, who leads the team in scoring with 32 points on 17 goals and 15 assists. Pitlick teams with sophomore right winger Jimmy Snuggerud (19-12-31) and freshman center Oliver Moore (7-22-29) on a top line that has produced 39.4% of Minnesota's goals.

"The great thing about Rhett is, as we've seen this growth with him, there's even another level you can hit," Motzko said. "He's such a dangerous player."

Both dangerous and essential for the Gophers, who close their regular season on Friday and Saturday with a two-game series against Michigan at 3M Arena at Mariucci. While the Gophers' two-year run as Big Ten regular-season champions will end — either Michigan State or Wisconsin will claim that crown — Minnesota can clinch third place in the Big Ten by securing at least two points.

"It's crazy to think we've got only two regular-season games left, but we're definitely excited," Pitlick said. "This is a huge week."

Pitlick, who had 11 goals and 14 assists last season in a supporting role, endured a slow start this season, with no goals in his first six games and only one goal in his first 10. He heated up with a seven-game streak from Nov. 17-Dec. 8 in which he had eight goals and five assists.

Since Jan. 7, he has eight goals and six assists. He's teamed with Snuggerud and Moore to form a line that might not be as prolific as the Cooley-Knies-Snuggerud trio, but one that's just as important to the Gophers' hopes of making a run to the Frozen Four in St. Paul.

"Obviously, there was an absurd amount of talent that left us last year, but we've also grown a lot this year," Pitlick said. "So it's been fun to see people take those strides."

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Pitlick, a fifth-round draft pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 2019, comes from an athletic family:

• His father, Lance, was a rugged defenseman on the Gophers' 1989 NCAA runner-up team and served as team captain a year later before playing eight NHL seasons with Ottawa and Florida.

• His brother, Rem, played for the Gophers from 2016-19 and now is with the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

• His mother, Lisa (Wittwer) Pitlick, was a Big Ten All-Around champion gymnast for the Gophers and competed in the late 1980s for the U.S. senior national team.

The determination from his father and the creativity from his mother are apparent in Pitlick's game. So is the desire to improve through film work, which was on display last year in the NCAA semifinals against Boston University.

With the score tied 1-1 in the first period, Pitlick reminded center Aaron Huglen of a video clip from earlier in the day. Huglen promptly sent a between-the-legs backhand pass to Pitlick, who converted on a power play for a 2-1 lead on the way to a 6-2 win.

"Rhett sent me a [video of a] Sidney Crosby kind of play similar to that," Huglen said last April. "I said, 'Yeah, we'll either try that or else break to the net.' And he broke to the net, and I found him."

It's that type of creativity that has Motzko believing Pitlick's importance will increase as the stakes ramp up.

"He finds ways to get points — they just collect with him and his high talent level," Motzko said. "I truly believe there's even another level he can hit, and this playoff season is gonna be great for him to embrace that as an upperclassman."