After an unscheduled one week delay, the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team will kick off the 2021-22 season this weekend with a home series against the Mercyhurst Lakers. Minnesota will look to being a season that they hope will end in Boston for the Frozen Four in April. It kicks off with a non-conference series that Minnesota in theory should have no trouble sweeping, but in the opening game of the season, you never know what might happen.
Minnesota brings back the vast majority of a NCAA tournament team from a year ago that appear as though they could be one of the best in the nation this season. Minnesota is currently ranked #4 in the national polls, one of four Minnesota teams ranked in the top five, and five Minnesota schools in the top 15 early in the season. The Gophers will see two of those ranked teams in the next two weeks, so it would be good to get off to a good and expected easier start this weekend against the Lakers.
Minnesota and Mercyhurst have faced off three times in the history of the programs with the Gophers winning all three at home. Minnesota defeated the Lakers 9-2 in their first game of their eventual 2003 NCAA Championship run, knocked off Mercyhurst 6-0 in the 2013 Ice Breaker opener, and then earned a 5-1 win in the 2016-17 Mariucci Classic. That’s a 20-3 all time scoring edge for the Gophers in the three matchups.
Mercyhurst is coming off of a season where then went 8-12-1 playing a majority of Atlantic Hockey conference games. The Lakers return their top 14 scorers from a season ago and are led by Carson Briere who recorded 19 points in 21 games and Jonathan Bendorf who led the team in goals with 11. The Lakers added one player who should be familiar with the Gophers in Notre Dame transfer Pierce Crawford who recorded 12 points in 108 games for the Irish over four seasons.
In goal Mercyhurst will most likely start Bemidji State transfer Hank Johnson. Johnson went 6-8-1 with a .900 save percentage and a 3.45 goals against average for the Beavers a season ago. The Lakers also have Kyle McClellan who played in six games a year ago for Mercyhurst and went 2-4 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.33 goals against average. Both goalies split time in the Lakers lone exhibition game last Saturday against Vermont which ended in a 4-2 win for the Catamounts. Mercyhurst blew a 2-0 lead in the second period after McClennan came into the game in relief of Johnson who was a perfect 9-9 on save attempts in his 28 minutes of game action.
Minnesota will obviously roll with Jack LaFontaine in net for Friday’s opener. The 5ith year goalie is coming off of a historic 2020-21 season where he was named the Mike Richter Award winner as the best goalie in college hockey. However, of Minnesota can earn a large win on Friday it would not be surprising to see freshman goalie Brennan Boynton see his college hockey debut on Saturday, or at least see a portion of the game if it is well in hand for Minnesota.
Minnesota will hopefully have a full roster available for the weekend series as Rhett Pitlick who would have missed last weekend’s series against Alaska had it not been postponed was back at practice this week and may see some game action. Bob Motzko has a larger than normal line-up to choose from with five freshman forwards and Colorado College transfer Grant Cruikshank joining a roster that only lost three or four forwards who had a regular role last season. Cruikshank is expected to make an immediate impact on the Gophers lineup after leading the Tigers in scoring a season ago despite missing several games with appendicitis. Add in a highly talented freshman class headlined by NHL First Round pick Chaz Lucius and this could be one of the most highly powered Gopher offenses in some time.
From all accounts it does not appear that the Gophers will have an official banner raising ceremony for their 2021 Big Ten Tournament Championship title, but rather will already have the banner hanging in the rafters above 3M Arena at Mariucci when the fans enter the building for the first time since March 8th of 2020 on Friday night. This sets a good precedent last year was last year, and this year needs to be even better. The Gophers don’t want a repeat of last year’s results, they want more. And Friday night they can get the current season off on a good skate as they look to not just hang one banner next October...but three.
HOW TO WATCH:
Mercyhurst Lakers @ #4 Minnesota Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci
When: 7 PM Friday/ 5 PM Saturday
TV: Bally Sports North Plus (Fri), Bally Sports North (Sat)
Stream: Bally Sports App/ BTN+ ($$)
Radio: 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ IHeart Radio App