Justen Close shuts out Notre Dame. Photo by Craig Cotner
Justen Close shuts out Notre Dame. Photo by Craig Cotner

Close Brilliant in Gophers 3-0 Shutout Over Irish

South Bend, IN – It was a weekend for the goalies.

In Friday’s contest, it was Notre Dame’s goaltender Ryan Bischel who stole the show, stopping 36 of Minnesota’s 38 shots along with all three shootout attempts to steal two points for the outplayed Fighting Irish.

In Saturday’s affair, Minnesota’s Justen Close answered back.

The Senior netminder posted his fourth shutout of the season in a 38-save masterclass, stopping multiple breakaways and shutting down Notre Dame’s powerplay en route to a 3-0 Gopher victory.

The first 15 minutes of Saturday’s rubber match was about as strange as any opening stretch in a hockey game that this writer has ever seen. Minnesota (15-4-2-2-1 Overall, 11-2-0-1 B1G) was assessed a 5-minute major just 2:27 into the game on a Ryan Chesley hit to the head, and less than three minutes into the game the Gophers were defending a 5-minute penalty.

An ineffective Notre Dame (9-11-1-0-3, 4-7-2-1) powerplay was successfully killed off by the Gophers, and just 1:14 after the Chesley major expired Minnesota’s Luke Mittelstadt was checked from behind into the boards, giving the Maroon and Gold their own five-minute powerplay early in the game. Mittelstadt was held out of the rest of the game as a precaution after the hit.

Minnesota’s 5-minute powerplay was just as ineffective as Notre Dame’s, and the Irish returned to full strength at 13:41 of the first period with the score still knotted at 0-0. The Gophers were able to get on the board late in the first, when Ryan Johnson’s shot from the point deflected off a Notre Dame leg and into the net to put Minnesota up 1-0 at 17:45 of the period.

Notre Dame’s Drew Bavaro and Solag Bakich both took penalties in the final minute of the first period, meaning the Gophers entered the intermission with a 1-0 lead but with 1+ minutes of two-man advantage to kick off the second.

Minnesota’s Logan Cooley scored on the 5×3 1:13 into the second to give the Maroon and Gold a 2-0 advantage. However, Bryce Brodzinski took a slashing penalty at 2:48 of the middle frame, giving Notre Dame a chance to get right back into the game.

Matthew Knies had other plans, though. The sophomore winger broke the puck out of the zone on the penalty kill before beating three Irish defenders and poking the puck through Bischel’s five-hole for a crucial shorthanded goal to put the Gophers up 3-0 at 4:04 of the second.

The Knies goal seemed to kick the Irish offense into high gear. Notre Dame outshot the Gophers 31-12 after the first period, including a whopping 19 shots in the second. The second half of the game is where Justen Close shined.

The senior goalie for the Gophers flat out stood on his head in the final 35 minutes of this contest, stopping multiple breakaways and quality scoring chances to keep Notre Dame off the board the rest of the way.

Close’s play belied the final 3-0 score, but after all the dust settled it was a comfortable Gopher victory with four points on the road against a solid opponent. The weekend put Minnesota up to 34 points in total in the Big Ten, good for a whopping 10-point lead over a three-way tie for second between Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State, who each have 24 points.

Minnesota also maintains its #1 spot in the Pairwise rankings over a Quinnipiac team that just doesn’t lose. The Bobcats are 18-1-3 on the season, and although they don’t play quality competition they don’t lose games either.

Up next for Minnesota is a home series against the Michigan. The Wolverines are all the way down in sixth place in the Big Ten standings, but are still in eighth place in the Pairwise thanks to their strong out-of-conference results early in the season. Michigan started the season off 9-2 but has gone 4-6-1 since, including being swept by the Gophers in Ann Arbor just before Thanksgiving.

The Wolverines always boast a lot of talent, and this year is no exception, with superstar defenseman Luke Hughes and all world freshman Adam Fantilli leading the way. Fantilli was out during the Gopher sweep of Michigan in November, so a full-strength Wolverines squad will be looking to exact revenge on the Gophers next weekend.

Both games are 7PM starts, and can be heard on the usual AM1130 / FM103.5. Friday’s contest is on Bally Sports North and can be streamed on BTN+ and BS+, while Saturday’s game is on BTN proper.

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