“It’s business time. We’re here to win two games.”
Those were the words of Gophers forward Sampo Ranta as he answered questions following Friday afternoon’s practice in Loveland, Colo. That line was the perfect summary for how Ranta and the rest of the Gophers’ men’s hockey team dealt with practice as they prepared for Saturday evening’s opening-round game against the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
While Ranta, Sammy Walker, and head coach Bob Motzko answered questions relating to their opponent Saturday night, they all brought the answers right back to themselves. It was going to be about the Gophers, and the Gophers have to get out and play their game.
Motzko listed off some characteristics of the opposing Omaha squad, but he came back with, “100% of our focus and our staff is on our team and how we are ready to go.” He also added, “We are just preparing for the things we have to do to have success.”
After arriving in Loveland on Thursday, the Gophers finally got a practice in on Friday afternoon. Motzko praised his club for their effort by saying they were sharp, crisp, and even had a bit of “snarl” as they try to ramp up for the Mavericks on Saturday night. Omaha has been described as big and physical, so having that snarl might come in handy in the opening game.
Motzko also noted that he was glad the Gophers played just a weekend ago in the Big Ten Tournament so they did not have too much time off before the NCAA Tournament. Some of the teams playing this weekend have been off for two weeks.
As Minnesota prepares to battle in their first NCAA Tournament game under Motzko as head coach, the key will be to get out ahead, which they have been able to do nearly all season. Minnesota has tallied the opening score in 21 out of 29 games this season, and are an impressive 20-1-0 in those games.
“We gotta be ready to go,” said Walker. “That’s being disciplined, not turning pucks over, getting pucks to the goal line, getting on their [defense], and causing turnovers. That’s what we gotta do right from the start.”
Ranta added, “Tomorrow’s going to be about us. We have to be ready to go and show up. Push the pace right away.’
Motzko said he wishes he could script the Gophers getting out ahead, but it’s rarely that easy in the NCAA Tournament.
But should the Gophers end up falling behind early in their game with Omaha, they have some recent experience in turning it around and finding ways to get the win. In their quarterfinal and semifinal games of the Big Ten Tournament against Michigan State and Michigan, the Gophers fell behind early but were able to overcome one- and two-goal deficits to get the win and eventually the Big Ten Tournament title.
Why have the Gophers been able to turn those deficits into wins? Motzko said the team is just built that way, at this time of year. “We’re capable of coming back if we fall down,” he said. ‘We have good depth, good balance, good special teams. We’re a good hockey team. I think it gave them, these last 10 to 12 days, the [Big Ten] tournament, the belief that they can do it.”
Discipline also was a key talking point on Friday, as Motzko preached that the team who can stay the most disciplined will have the best chance to win.
“You can’t take unnecessary penalties. You have to be disciplined,” Motzko said. “In college hockey, discipline is one of the key components to winning hockey games. Winning the special teams battle. The best way you can do that is to be disciplined. Our guys bought into that. We’re fortunate, and I think it helps us.”