Minneapolis, MN – The Minnesota Gophers were set to begin their 2021-2022 season a week ago with a series against the Alaska Nanooks. COVID concerns meant the Nanooks never made it out of Fairbanks, and Minnesota was forced to remain idle one more long week before finally squaring off against the Mercyhurst Lakers.
It was worth the wait.
The Gophers experienced it all in Friday’s season-opener – power plays and penalty kills, big leads and momentum shifts galore. At the end of it all, it turned into a 7-4 win and the first of what should be many wins for a seasoned and talented Minnesota team which was ranked preseason #4 in the country.
In three previous meetings against Mercyhurst, the Gophers went 3-0 with a combined 20-3 goals for / goals against, so it did not come as a shock when the Gophers went up 2-0 by the first intermission. Powerplay goals by Bryce Brodzinski at 9:44 and Mason Nevers at 19:19 gave Minnesota the two-goal cushion heading into the break.
What was surprising, however, was Mercyhurst’s tenacity. The Lakers scored the next two goals of the game midway through the second period to turn a potential laugher of a game into a tense battle. The Gophers responded, with Ryan Johnson scoring with just 40 seconds left in the middle frame to give the Gophers a slim 3-2 lead, and Blake McLaughlin scored early in the third (with the assist to Sammy Walker, of course) to push the lead back to two at 4-2.
Mercyhurst could have shrunk away at this point, but again they fought back, responding just 1:23 after the McLaughlin goal to draw within one again at 4-3. Minnesota bounced back again, with Sammy Walker scoring what would be the game-winner at 7:27 of the third (on a beautiful pass from McLaughlin) to put Minnesota back up by two at 5-3. The Gophers added two more goals later in the third, both off of freshman Matthew Knies’ stick (with single assists to Ben Meyers) to push their total to seven, while Mercyhurst was able to score one more to get to four before the final horn sounded.
Jack LaFontaine was the winning goalie for the Gophers Friday; expect him to get the vast majority of the starts between the pipes for the Maroon and Gold this year. The fifth-year senior was steady if not spectacular in his first start following his Mike Richter award win (given to the nation’s top goalie) last year. Although the numbers may look ugly (four goals on 25 shots), Minnesota gave up a ton of odd man rushes and breakaways. LaFontaine’s steady play, especially in the second period as the game tightened up, kept Minnesota from losing touch as they fought to regain the momentum of the game.
The Gophers will look forward to hosting Mercyhurst again Saturday. The puck drops at 5PM for the rubber match. The game can be seen and streamed on Bally Sports North, and heard on 1130AM / 103.5FM.
The forward lineup was littered with impact freshmen Friday night. The Walker-McLaughlin-Brodzinski line was the only one that did not sport a freshman. Matthew Knies (#89) looked good with Ben Meyers. He showed some speed, size, and grit, bringing the puck to the front of the net multiple times. Chaz Lucius (#29) also looked dangerous on Jaxon Nelson’s right wing, with smooth-skating junior newcomer Grant Cruikshank (#21) on Nelson’s left wing. Jack Perbix centered two more freshmen in Tristan Broz (#10) and Aaron Huglen (#7).
While the forwards sported a lot of new faces, the defense was the usual suspects. The players and pairings have not changed at all from last season, with the pairs of Brinkman/Koster, Johnson/Faber, and LaCombe/Staudacher anchoring the defensive side of the ice. A bit surprising to this writer that, given the relative consistency on the back end and relative churn at forward, it was the offense that clicked tonight while the defense struggled. We’ll see if that changes as the team gets a few more reps under their belts.
Blake McLaughlin (1G-2A) and Ben Meyers (0-3) led the team in scoring, while Matthew Knies (2-0) is the first Gopher to two goals on the year.
Ryan Johnson waited almost two full seasons before scoring his first goal as a Gopher, but started out his junior campaign scoring a goal in the very first game of the year. He now has three total goals for his Gopher career. Expect even more offense this season from the talented defenseman.