Minneapolis, Minn. — As the No. 12 Gophers (10-6-4) kicked off the second half of their season against No. 17 Colorado College (10-7-1) there were concerns about whether Minnesota could put together an entire weekend and whether the four players returning from winning a gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Sweden would have anything left in the tank. Getting a split against the Tigers means the Gophers fell short on one concern, but a five goal weekend from Jimmy Snuggerud left no doubt about the other.
“They have a game changer in their lineup to say the least. One of the things that we talked about going into last night was don’t let them scoring affect how we think we’re playing,” said Colorado College coach Kris Mayotte. “You can control the game, but they can score on any shot… especially that kid.”
Snuggerud scored two goals during Sunday night’s 4-6 loss against the Tigers and then added three more on Monday night’s 6-2 win to close his case for earning the Big Ten’s number one star of the week — which he was named on Wednesday. The five goals moved the sophomore to second nationally in goal scoring with 15 and he’s now tied for the team lead in scoring with Rhett Pitlick at 22 points.
The St. Louis Blues have to be impressed with the performance of their 2022 first round pick and certainly his teammates know how special of a shot he has after watching him score five goals and three assists in Sweden and jumping right back into the mix after getting into bed around midnight before the series to kick off the second half. Defenseman Luke Mittelstadt joked that on the power play a teammate’s best chance to get a free point is when you see Snuggerud’s stick raised and move the puck over to him. Goalie Justen Close joked that when Snuggerud’s power play jumps on the ice, he makes sure to take the net at the other end to face the other group.
“We say all the time, ‘shooting galleries open for him,’ said fellow returning gold medalist Sam Rinzel. “I mean he could have had seven tonight… the first half he was maybe not getting as [many goals] as maybe he thought he should be getting and you could kind of see it, but it’s good for him to start off the second half of the year this way.”
Rinzel himself had a nice Monday night game with three assists to start his second half which pushed him to being the leading scorer among Minnesota’s defensemen. The freshman’s offensive game has flashed all season long with the skill that impressed Chicago enough to make him a first round pick, but it’s finding the right moments to push for offense and honing his defensive game that has become a focus.
“Obviously I was in a defensive role [at the world junior,] so I think being able to adapt to that was important,” said Rinzel. “[Defense] was kind of a knock on me, I would say maybe a year or two years ago, so I think it was good to establish that and grow that part of my game. The tournament was a really cool experience and really good for my development for sure.”
As Rinzel’s defensive game develops, then maybe the Gophers can start to address the other midseason concern that showed itself during the weekend against the Tigers–consistently being inconsistent. During availability before the series, Motzko joked that his team was pretty consistent the first half in reality. They were consistent at falling short one game every weekend and they don’t want to consistently do that going into the second half.
“We kind of looked at everything over break. I liked how we played… like in sports we had to deal with some of the things that you just can’t control with injuries and illness. We ran out of gas a few third periods and partly maybe because of the bodies we had out,” said Motzko.
“There were six games where we had leads in the third period or tied, five of them we lost or got into overtime or we could have had more points. That means we were right there, it wasn’t really good one night and one bad the next. We need to toughen up and a lot of it was our Saturday nights. We have a lot of players that are playing heavy roles that they didn’t play a year ago. You know we have this number seven playing in St. Paul who played a lot of those minutes.”
That number seven, is wearing No. 14 for the Wild in Brock Faber, but he’s doing a pretty good job at Xcel for the Wild who are going through their own injury problems. Motzko also noted that there were a couple other players including Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson, Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley that played a lot of heavy minutes that have now been handed over to young players or new players. The coach recognizes that one night a week they’ve been great and then the next night when there is a strong push from the opponent where the Gophers are close, but it’s usually a few critical mistakes that cost them. Motzko just hopes that they now have enough experience to play without making those critical mistakes.
Unfortunately for Minnesota a weekend without mistakes didn’t happen and on Friday night the mistakes were again critical ones that handed goals to Colorado College.
“We started off great… great energy then we got bored,” said Motzko. “We were working hard, but the goal wasn’t coming and then Colorado College kept digging in their heels and we took our foot off the pedal. We score a goal and then we give up one the next shift. And it was not a good goal on our part. The second period we just flat the entire period. We had great energy in the third but the mistakes were too much to overcome.”
The coach gave some hints about what he thinks needs to happen during the postgame on Monday pointing out how his team needs to stay above pucks because once they do that, the play comes to them instead of chasing the play and it helps keep their defensemen involved with the transition game. The coach added that when the defensemen are involved, then they get in transition and can use their speed inside the dots. The coach just hopes that his team can add a little more ground game out of his lineup.
“We’re close, we’re healthy, we’ve got experience we can now draw on, we’ve got confidence and we’ll see where this ride takes us,” said Close. “I think there’s a few games there where we would like to lock it down a little bit more in the third period. I think as long as we play simple and we play hard and we trust one another, I think that’s what you need down the stretch. Not to say that we weren’t doing that, but you got to learn those lessons the hard way sometimes. I think that stuff pays off big down the stretch and third periods, especially in bigger games.
The Gophers will need to get things right with their last non-conference series before heading back into Big Ten play as Robert Morris (6-13-3) is 62nd of 64 teams in the PairWise Rankings. Any points given away to them will have a large impact on Minnesota’s current ranking of No. 12 in the metric used to determine which teams advance to the NCAA Tournament.