Gophers Bounce Back with Pair of 3-0 Wins
South Bend, IN – If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: leaders have to lead, especially at critical moments of the season.
Perhaps no juncture of the 2020-2021 Gopher hockey season has been more critical than this weekend’s series against Notre Dame. Minnesota is coming off a home sweep at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, who vaulted over the Gophers into first place in the Big Ten standings as a result. The Gophers got beat and got beat badly, giving up 14 goals to the red-hot Badgers while scoring just two of their own.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, had just walloped Ohio State by that same 14-2 scoreline over two games to vault up into third place in the conference, a mere six-points back of second-place Minnesota and within striking distance should the Irish sweep the downtrodden Gophers.
Minnesota’s leaders knew that this weekend was an important test. Jack LaFontaine didn’t mince words speaking about the Wisconsin debacle: “last weekend was unacceptable, not just on score but on effort and execution.” Captain Sammy Walker called the Notre Dame games “huge”.
Like they’ve done almost all year, the Gophers put their heads down and played good hockey.
Led by their leaders, Minnesota (17-5-0 Overall, 13-5-0 B1G) dug out a pair of crucial wins on the road against a surging Notre Dame squad (10-11-1, 8-9-1). LaFontaine especially came up big, stopping all 52 shots he faced on the weekend to walk out of Compton Family Ice Arena with the Gophers’ first back-to-back shutouts in almost 10 years. The identical 3-0 victories featured big goals by the usual suspects, with Walker, Sampo Ranta (x2), Blake McLaughlin and Brannon McManus lighting the lamp to lead Minnesota to the sweep.
“When you play Notre Dame, you know it’s going to be a one-goal game,” said junior forward Sampo Ranta. Many of the players and coaches stressed staying patient as one of the tenets of having success against this structured defensive style.
Minnesota needed to stay patient for a long time Friday. The Gophers did get on the board first at 11:10 of the opening period when Sammy Walker scored with a wrister off the rush on the powerplay. Minnesota kept piling on the shots and chances from there throughout the second, but they weren’t able to pierce Irish goalie Dylan St. Cyr again to extend that lead.
Near the end of the second period, Gopher forward Jaxon Nelson took a 5-minute major, meaning that Minnesota (who had more-or-less controlled the game through two) left the ice only with a one-goal lead and with ND looking at 4+ minutes of powerplay to open the third.
This could have broken the momentum and discouraged the team, but it didn’t. The Gophers were able to kill the ND powerplay, and a tense third period was finally broken with under 5 minutes to go when Sampo Ranta tipped a Brannon McManus shot past St. Cyr to give Minnesota a two-goal cushion. Blake McLaughlin tacked on an empty-netter with under one second remaining in the game to seal the 3-0 shutout victory.
Coach Motzko was effusive with his praise Friday night, calling the game “one of the more complete wins of the year” and adding that “it came at a great time.”
Saturday was a bit of a different feeling game, with Notre Dame coming out strong in the first period looking to finally put a puck past LaFontaine. The Irish did their best, fired 15 shots on goal in the opening frame, but they weren’t able to get on the board.
Minnesota seemed to feed off of the momentum of keeping the Irish off the board, and pounced early in the second. Brannon McManus dented the twine at 4:09 of the middle stanza after a beautiful no-look backhand pass from Sampo Ranta to give the Gophers the first goal of the game. 2:07 later, Nathan Burke intercepted a pass in the Irish zone and beat goalie Ryan Bischel with a wrist shot to double the Minnesota lead at 2-0.
Notre Dame played hard the rest of the way, but they don’t score a lot of goals by design, and they weren’t able to beat a focused LaFontaine the rest of the game. Ranta scored his own tic-tac-toe goal from Scott Reedy and McManus at 15:11 of the third to put the Gophers up 3-0, the same score as Friday night and the final score of the game.
If the mood post-game Friday night was happy, Saturday’s press conference was more workmanlike. Of course the players and coaches were happy with the result, but it was as if this weekend reminded everyone that this is what the best teams in the country are supposed to do. Good teams find a way to win, and this Gopher team battled a tough opponent to win two very important games this weekend.
The six points pushed Minnesota back up to first place in the Big Ten standings, which is where they’ll stay after the weekend is out – Wisconsin lost Saturday to Michigan, and the two teams square off again Sunday (which has not occurred as of the writing of this article). No matter what happens in that game, Minnesota will enjoy at least a two-point lead in the conference standings.
With only three weekends left in the regular season, the race for the Big Ten title is coming down to the wire. Minnesota faces Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan in its final three series.
The Gophers have 39 points, currently five clear of second place Wisconsin (who has 34 and a game in hand), and 13 ahead of third-place Michigan (with 26 and three games in hand). The Wolverines paused hockey operations for a few weeks while containing a COVID outburst on campus, so they have played three-fewer league games than Minnesota as of now (will be two fewer after Sunday’s matchup with the Badgers).
The Gophers are in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten at this point, but both Wisconsin and Michigan have a chance to catch them, especially if Michigan takes more than three points in their early-March series against Minnesota.
Up next for the Gophers is a struggling Michigan State team that is just 6-10-2 on the year. They, along with Ohio State, occupy the cellar of the Big Ten this season. Given the way Minnesota is playing, along with what they’re playing for, anything much less than a 6-point sweep will likely be a letdown.
Friday’s game is a 7PM start, while Saturday’s puck drop is at 5PM. Both games can be seen on TV (Friday FSN Plus, Saturday FSN), streamed on Fox Sports Go, and heard on AM1130 KTLK.