Officially, I was never there. So, too, were all of the fans that braved the treacherous snowstorm to see Minnesota play an exhibition contest against the USA National Team Development Program Under-18 team on Friday at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
Minnesota took the loss thanks to a late, third-period goal from Notre Dame commit Landon Slaggert. It held up as the game-winner, with USA going home 2-1 victors.
“It was an exhibition game and half of our guys played like an exhibition game,” head coach Bob Motzko said. “You’d like a little more out of our guys early in the game.”
Some faces Minnesota hasn’t seen regularly this season got into the game Friday. Usually, forwards Cullen Munson and Joey Marooney are in the lineup in place of one another, but they both appeared in Friday’s game. Both players brought a much-needed physical presence against the large USA team that certainly isn’t hesitant about making its presence known.
Defensemen Sam Rossini and Matt Denman also appeared on Friday, with Robbie Stucker sitting out. He is usually the extra skater in regular-season games for his power-play prowess. Rossini has played in two regular-season games this season, while Denman hasn’t appeared at all.
In net, Motzko started his seldom-used freshman goaltender Justen Close. He made 14 saves on 16 shots faced.
“Closer did a real good job for us,” Motzko said. “His teammates were excited for him to get in there. He did an excellent job. He didn’t have a chance on either goal.”
After one full weekend back together, Minnesota’s forward duo of Sampo Ranta and Scott Reedy was dominant in terms of puck possession and chemistry. Eventually, with the Gophers down 1-0 in the third, the two connected to tie the game. Ranta possessed the puck through the offensive zone and finally drew a defender to attack him and dished the puck to Reedy right in front of the net to put it past goaltender Drew Commesso.
“I was trying to create a little space for myself,” Ranta said. “I know Reedy’s going to be at the net front … It worked, he was wide open and he made a good shot.”
It’s a near-annual contest between the Gophers and the United States’ best crop of up-and-coming hockey stars. Usually, it gives Minnesota fans to also get a good look at college hockey’s next best talent, too. Eight of the players dressed in Friday’s contest for the USA team are committed to colleges in the Big Ten, as well as two pairs of defensemen going to the NCHC’s Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota.
Minnesota fans had one player to keep a keen eye on for their own fandom with second-pair defenseman Brock Faber playing in the game. The Maple Grove native has nine points in 32 games this season with Team USA and could be in a Gophers uniform as soon as next season.
The exhibition game essentially gave Minnesota some game action in a week off from Big Ten play. Next week, the Gophers welcome No. 9 Ohio State to Minneapolis with a chance to return to .500 on the season.
“We’re doing a lot of battle drills and working on our skills,” defenseman Ben Brinkman said. “At the end of the day for us, it’s just if we show up to compete that night.”