For the first time since the National Championship season of 2001-02, the Gophers men’s hockey team is off to a 6-0 start. Sweeps of defending Big Ten Champion Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State have vaulted the Gophers up the rankings — now up to No. 4 in the latest poll — and have them considered among the best in college hockey.
This is quite the improvement for head coach Bob Motzko – now in his third season behind the bench – and his squad, as the Gophers had bouts of inconsistency last year before they began to find their stride at the end of the season before the playoffs were canceled.
Besides returning a large majority of the roster from last year and having a good amount of practice before the season, what exactly has been key for the Gophers and their hot start? There are a lot of things that are firing on all cylinders for this hockey team.
First Period Success
Setting the tone in the first period has been a constant for the Gophers this season. They have outscored their opponents by a combined score of 9-1 through six games, while allowing an average of seven shots against. Motzko acknowledged the good opening frames following the sweep of Michigan State on Friday, and the Gophers will no doubt try again to get off to a fast start against Michigan Tuesday night. It’s a lot easier for a team to get out ahead in the opening frame and dictate the play later in the game.
Goaltender Jack LaFontaine has had to adjust to the slow work load in the first period, something goalies typically don’t like. “[I’m] getting used to that,” he said. “Mentally, it’s obviously difficult, but at the end of the day it’s one shot at a time, one save at a time.”
The defense for Minnesota has been solid to start the season, but it also helps to have one of the nation’s best goaltenders behind you to bail you out when something goes wrong. LaFontaine has started every game for Minnesota this season, and his six wins easily lead Division I. LaFontaine also ranks second in college hockey in goals against average and save percentage of goaltenders who have played three or more games this season. “We can count on him back there,” said Scott Reedy. “We trust him. It’s nice knowing every time I’m out there that he is in net.”
Despite the solid start to the season, LaFontaine has not taken it for granted and still wants to get better. “It’s even keel right now,” he said. “Not too high, not too low. It’s the life of a goalie. You can never ride too high because this game has a way of humbling you. I’m personally never satisfied. I’m always hungry. I’m a perfectionist. We always strive for more.”
The Gophers have been consistently solid at five on five this season, but to make things worse for their opponents, they are just as good if not better when up or down a man. The power play has converted six out of 22 times (27%), but their penalty kill has yet to allow a goal on 15 shorthanded chances. Even better, the Gophers have only allowed 20 shots on those kills. Both Motzko and the players acknowledged the special teams play last weekend as a bright spot so far this season.
Motzko said returning players has been a key for the penalty kill, which will look to stay perfect this week at Michigan. “You start with LaFontaine, and he’s been a rock for us, and then you look at what’s returning,” Motzko said following Thursday night’s win. “We start off with [Ben] Meyers and [Jaxon] Nelson and the second half last year they were our top group coming over the boards on the penalty kill, and I think they’re fantastic together.”
Minnesota closes the first half of their season at Michigan Tuesday and Wednesday night in a matchup of two top-five teams in the country.