With eight series in the rear-view mirror and eight more, plus a two-game holiday tournament, remaining, Gophers men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko considers this weekend’s set at Ohio State as the start of the second half of the season.
“We’ve already hit the halfway point,’’ Motzko said during Tuesday’s media session. “We’ve done a little 30-thousand-foot look down on where it’s at.’’
And where is it?
At 5-8-3, the Gophers certainly don’t have a record over which to beat their chests. And they’re coming off a home series in which their archrival, North Dakota, frolicked to a 9-3 win in the opener before staving off a strong Minnesota effort to win 3-2 in the finale. Mistakes, then corrections. That’s been a theme for the Gophers all season long, a byproduct of having a roster that relies on nine freshmen in regular roles.
A closer look shows that the Gophers have struggled against the best teams on their schedule and excelled against mediocre or worse squads. Against Minnesota Duluth (the defending NCAA champ that was ranked No. 8 at the time), Notre Dame (No. 5 at the time), Penn State (No. 8) and North Dakota (No. 3) – teams that are a combined 38-15-5 -- the Gophers are 0-7-1. When playing the quartet of Colorado College, Niagara, Michigan and Wisconsin – teams that are a combined 20-30-6 -- Minnesota is 5-1-2.
“We’re in between,’’ Motzko said. “When you come to a program like this, you’re going to play a lot of top-10 teams. That’s what we’re building towards.’’
The building process hasn’t advanced as quickly as fans would like. Constructed to house 10,000 spectators, 3M Arena at Mariucci often is less than 60 percent full unless a team with large, motivated fan base, like North Dakota, is the opponent. An interesting gauge of the public’s interest will come Dec. 28 and 29 in the Mariucci Classic. The Gophers play Bemidji State, while St. Cloud State meets top-ranked Minnesota State on the opening day. A possible Minnesota-Minnesota State matchup on the second day would give the Gophers another shot at making an impression against one of the nation’s best teams.
Motzko sees encouraging signs from his team – the steady play of freshman defenseman Matt Staudacher and freshman center Ben Meyers finding his scoring touch are a couple – and will continue to use encouragement as tool for improvement.
“We’re coaching to stay on the positive side, which we have to do,’’ he said, pointing to two-goal leads in losses to Notre Dame and Penn State and in a tie with Wisconsin. “… I’m on the glass is half-full. We’re closer to getting better, close to figuring it out. The reason I say that is I like our hockey team. I like how we’re preparing, how we’re moving forward. I haven’t liked a couple of the outcomes.’’
With the second half for the Gophers starting at No. 7 Ohio State this weekend, transforming signs of growth into tangible results in the win-loss column is Motzko’s challenge.