The 2021 NCAA Men’s Hockey tournament opens on Friday. With no tournament last year, this will be the first college hockey championship crowned since 2019, when Minnesota-Duluth won their second consecutive championship. However, the reminder of the pandemic is still upon the 2021 tournament, as on Thursday afternoon it was announced that Notre Dame would be removed from the field due to positive COVID-19 tests.
For the first time since 2017, the Minnesota Gophers are in the tournament after nearly winning the Big Ten regular-season crown but did get the automatic bid due to the Big Ten Tournament championship.
So what can you expect from the Gophers as they embark on their 37th appearance in the NCAA tournament? Well, we have put together a guide for you going over every aspect of the U of M and their competition in the tournament.
We hope you enjoy.
HOW MINNESOTA GOT HERE
The Gophers somehow bottled their momentum from the end of the 2019-20 campaign and let it all out as soon as the next regular season began. They had a tough start to 2019-20, but after the Christmas break, the team went 11-6-3 to finish the season. Head coach Bob Motzko has repeatedly said that was the turning point of the season. During that stretch, Minnesota beat Notre Dame in three games in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament before COVID-19 prematurely ended the season.
Minnesota came out with largely the same roster this season as it did a season ago. More age, experience, physicality, and knowledge of what it takes to win in college hockey. Before anyone had a chance to blink, the Gophers were off to a 10-0-0 start and a penchant for steady, aggressive hockey games. Despite all the victories, one opponent gave Minnesota a consistently difficult opponent. Wisconsin accounted for half of the Gophers’ six losses, with two coming against Notre Dame and one against Michigan.
Now, after the thrilling Big Ten tournament that saw the Gophers win two games in overtime and beat the Badgers for the title, Minnesota is ready to embark on another banner-raising journey in the NCAA tournament.
WHERE THE GOPHERS THRIVE
Minnesota had a number of things fall into place to be successful this season. Here are just some of the reasons why they finished 23-6 and are a No. 1-seed in the NCAA tournament:
Deep at center
Motzko has said time and again just how ready the Gophers are down the middle of the ice. Captain Sammy Walker heads the group, going down with Ben Meyers, Jaxon Nelson and Jack Perbix. Walker is one of the scorers and playmakers the team has been able to depend on this season. Meyers and Nelson are two hustle players that can play first or fourth line time regardless the linemates, they just make each of them better. Perbix has come in and made a significant impact physically. Not to mention, Scott Reedy has been a successful center but has played wing of late and could jump in and take a faceoff when needed.
The Gophers largely avoided the injury bug this season. While many other teams had COVID-19 issues, it never hit Minnesota in the regular season. On top of that success, games lost to injury were few. Reedy lost three games in the middle of the season, Nathan Burke was absent for five and Ben Brinkman missed two. But other than that, games were only lost to the World Junior tournament or healthy scratches.
THE HOBEY BAKER FINALIST
LaFontaine has been incredibly steady for a program that has seen high-end goaltenders through the last decade. Adam Wilcox, Eric Schierhorn and Mat Robson were all extremely talented figures that gave Minnesota an exceptional chance to win.
Once Schierhorn graduated and Robson left for the pros, there was a vacuum for the Gophers for the first time in a long time. LaFontaine showed up as a transfer to be the starter while other talent figured a way to develop and get to the college level. Since he arrived, he has turned everyone’s head but his own and dominated college hockey this season.
No one in the nation had as low of a goals-against average and as high of a save percentage in the number of minutes he played. LaFontaine was the second most used goalie this season with nearly 1600 minutes played. In addition, he was third among all goalies in goals-against average with 1.74 and second in save percentage with .936.
The 21 wins for LaFontaine were the most in the NCAA this season, and his accomplishments earned him a nomination for the Hobey Baker Award, in addition to getting the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year last week.
It’s a very cliche thing to say in hockey, but for the Gophers in this tournament, they will go as far as LaFontaine will take them.
KEY PLAYERS FOR MINNESOTA
Cole Caufield led the NCAA with 28 goals, and easily had the spotlight in terms of lighting the lamp. But behind him on the list was Sampo Ranta, who netted 18 goals for Minnesota this season, and was tied for second in college hockey in that aspect.
Consistency has been the name of the game this season for Ranta, a junior, according to Motzko. “Sampo’s just been very consistent all year,” Motzko said following the Big Ten semifinal win against Michigan last weekend. “There’s not many weekends he’s not found the net.”
Motzko is right, in that there have been just two weekends all season where Ranta has not scored a goal. The first was early in the season against Ohio State, and the second came in the disaster weekend against Wisconsin in early February. With a solid presence in goal, the Gophers will need some offense to help take them along in the tournament, and Ranta will be the guy to help get it going.
It takes a special player to make a significant impact in his freshman season. The only thing that would have been more impressive for Chaska product Mike Koster would have been having the same impact right out of high school.
He spent time in the USHL, and that set up his tremendous debut season for the Gophers in 2020-21. Koster was an injection of life that an already exciting defense corps needed to make a significant jump in the standings. Minnesota has always had a tendency to feature one or two smooth-skating, puck-moving defensemen, but this season was the perfect storm of recruiting work coming together.
In the absence of three key defenders to the World Junior tournament, Koster thrived in an elevated role. He was featured on the power play, played more significant minutes and the defense looked to not miss a step, as the team won each game without those other defenders without a hitch.
Koster made a big difference when it counted this past weekend in the Big Ten tournament. He accounted for seven shots and two assists against Michigan State in the opening round. Two nights later, he had three shots and a goal against Wisconsin for the championship.
While Koster wasn’t the defense’s leading scorer this season, his readiness to play college hockey helped the Gophers avoid an adjustment period to start the season. That ability was a perfect complement to an already dynamic defense that gave the Gophers a fortunate mismatch against almost every opponent.
LaCombe was one of nine defensemen in the NCAA with 20 or more points this season. His 20 points led the Big Ten along with Cam York of Michigan. LaCombe also led Minnesota and all NCAA defensemen with two shorthanded goals this season.
Talk about clutch, Reedy has had that trait for his entire career. With five game winning goals this season and 12 in his Minnesota career, the senior has a knack for scoring in a tough spot. If the Gophers make a deep run, you can bet there will be a clutch goal from Reedy to help get them along.
BEHIND THE BENCH
On March 27, 2018, Minnesota officially hired Bob Motzko as their new head coach to replace the retiring Don Lucia. He took over a program that was coming off a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten and had missed the NCAA tournament two of the previous three seasons. Athletic Director Mark Coyle was looking to bring in a head coach who could help bring the Gophers back to the NCAAs on a regular basis while being competitive in the Big Ten, which has made tremendous strides as a hockey conference in recent years.
Now in his third year, Motzko has finally gotten the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since taking over and will hang his first banner at 3M Arena at Mariucci after Minnesota won the Big Ten Tournament last weekend. While his second year was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had the Gophers in a great place to perhaps make the tournament last season with a few more wins that were still ahead of them. But that’s all in the past now.
Motzko had built up the St. Cloud State program before leaving for Minnesota, making the NCAAs five out his final six years. That stretch included a Frozen Four appearance in 2013, which was in Pittsburgh, where the Frozen Four is slated to be held this year.
But the knock on the former Minnesota assistant (2001-2005) is that his track record in the NCAAs is less than ideal. Motzko carries a 5-8 record in the tournament, and if you take away that 2013 Frozen Four run, it drops to 2-7. In the last two appearances with St. Cloud State, he had the No. 1 regional seed, but both were upset in the first round to bring his time with the Huskies to an end.
Motzko will be the first to tell you that the record is old news, but it is something that will rear its ugly head should the Gophers make a quick exit in this tournament.
Can he guide the Gophers to their first Frozen Four since 2014? He certainly has the team to do so.
THE REGIONAL OPPOSITION
The top-seeded Gophers drew the University of Omaha in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and they get the last game of the first round, with a 9:00 PM central time puck drop (tentative due to a game playing ahead of them).
The Mavericks were off to a solid start in the season, with a 10-5-1 record through the end of January. They were looking sharp in the NCHC but ended up losing four out of five to enter the tournament, including four straight to end the regular season against No. 1 overall tournament seed North Dakota.
Omaha finished fourth in the NCHC in the regular season and ended up losing to Denver in the first round of the conference tournament 5-4.
Heading into the WCHA tournament, the Mavericks (yes, another team named the “Mavericks” in this region) were seemingly on the cusp of a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA tournament. But a 5-1 loss to Northern Michigan in the second round put an end to that notion and Mankato found themselves in the West region drawing Quinnipiac in the first round.
At 20-4-1, MSU-Mankato boasts an impressive record thanks in part to a very solid defense. The Mavericks ranked first in college hockey in goals against and shots against per game, which made their 5-1 Northern Michigan loss even more surprising. If you can get a few goals on the Mavericks, you certainly have a decent shot at taking them down in this tournament.
With one of the top scorers in the nation, Odeen Tufto, the Bobcats won the ECAC regular season title and were upset by St. Lawrence in the conference title game. But with the departure of St. Lawrence from the tournament due to COVID, the Bobcats drew the automatic bid to the tournament.
Through the season, the Bobcats were the best team in college hockey in drawing penalties, and turned that into success as they led the NCAA in power play goals. Tufto was a big reason for that success, as he had 20 assists with the man advantage to easily lead the nation. Ethan De Jong and Ty Smilanic were big recipients of Tufto’s set ups, as they both tied for the team lead with 14 goals.
MINNESOTAN EXCELLENCE IN BRACKET
As Minnesota heads to anchor the West Regional in Loveland, the opponent that waits for the Gophers is NCHC member school Nebraska-Omaha. As noted above, Minnesota State joins the Gophers in that regional as it takes on Quinnipiac.
Notably, while the bracket remained its normal 16-team format, five schools from Minnesota made it into the field. In addition to the Gophers and Mavericks, Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, and St. Cloud State all made the tournament. With all five Minnesota-based Division-I programs making the tournament, it marks the first time that has ever happened, since Bemidji State made the leap in 1999 as the fifth team.
Years of grassroots work from many people, including famed Minnesota and St. Cloud State coach Herb Brooks, helped sow the seeds of expanding the Division-I presence in the state. As talent all over Minnesota has continued to expand, the growing presence of high-level college teams has as well. More than 40 years of work has culminated in an impressive milestone, but it will be one to break very soon when St. Thomas joins the ranks next season.
GOPHERS BY THE NUMBERS
*51 teams competed in Division-I college hockey this season.