Gophers hockey is back and looks more dominant than it has in nearly 20 years.
A series victory over Notre Dame in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in 2020 felt to many like one of the first tangible positive steps forward for the program in years, and that they had staying power. Then it all came crashing down in the week leading up to the second round. A date was set, a match with Penn State to continue the dominant second half the Gophers had. Then COVID-19 hit and everything stopped until November.
Minnesota’s most recent victories against Michigan has the Gophers off to an 8-0 start — the best in more than 30 years. It has all been the product of that team that really came together nearly 10 months ago.
“[It’s] a lot of little things we continue to do as a team and how close this group is,” Bob Motzko said after Wednesday’s game against Michigan. “Whether it’s penalty kill, special teams, faceoffs … blocking shots, a little toughness that a team has to have to go on a roll.”
Hitting the ice in full stride has been one of Minnesota’s most consistent and noticeable traits this season. In each of their six games, a dominant stretch to begin the game has propelled the Gophers to victory. Except for the first period in the first game of the season, where both teams looked to find their legs playing against a team other than themselves after a long layoff, Minnesota hadn’t wasted any time building a lead.
The Gophers have 11 goals through eight first periods this season. That includes two games that went scoreless in the first period. Three of those first period goals come from senior Scott Reedy, who has had a very consistent and visible start to his season.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Reedy said after the team’s latest victory, 4-0 over Michigan. “For our coaching staff, for our team, for our fans, and it’s the 100th season of Gopher hockey, so there’s a lot more to it than just the guys in the locker room.”
In total, Reedy has five goals and two assists through the first six games. He has been a dominating force with the puck, driving plays and keeping it away from any defender that attempts to take it from him. His presence in front of the net is where his big frame really shines, though. He makes life tough on the opposing goaltender and when there’s a rebound, he’s in the best area to scoop it up and find twine.
On the back end, Jack LaFontaine has held his net firm, and while Motzko could have altered his starting goaltenders early on, LaFontaine has figuratively handcuffed himself to the goalposts with his play.
LaFontaine leads the nation in wins after starting each of the Gophers’ games so far. His eight goals against are 14 fewer than any other goaltender that has started at least eight games this season. His even 1.00 goals against average and .956 save percentage are the best in the country of anyone with comparable minutes in net.
The thing with all of these successes for Minnesota is that it could all be very different. March was a very long time ago and rarely do teams sustain growth without a few setbacks after 10 months away. LaFontaine’s stellar second half could have faded and he could have regressed to start the season. Reedy could have opted to not return after he led the team in goal scoring a year ago. Losing two very important defensemen in Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Tyler Nanne could have spelled disaster for a young, offensively gifted group of defenders in 2020-21.
Instead, LaFontaine is the best netminder in the country. Reedy looks on pace to lead the gritty play of a true contender in his senior season. Despite the losses of Zuhlsdorf, Nanne, and three defensemen for World Junior Championship camp for the two most recent games, Minnesota’s defensemen have looked skilled and calm against some of the best offenses the Big Ten has to offer.
Right now, the Gophers have managed to maintain the momentum of a successful second half of last season through the most unique offseason each of these players and coaches have ever endured. Eight victories will be it in 2020, as the team has some time to prepare for the next half of the schedule, whenever that will be released.
Through eight games, Motzko has this cohesive group ready to do damage right out of the gates this year.