2021 has come and gone, and 2022 is here and roaring in at a quick pace. The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team returned from their holiday break on Sunday afternoon to defeat St. Thomas 5-2 in an exhibition game at South St. Paul’s Doug Woog Arena. They will play one additional exhibition game Monday night when they host the US Under 18 team at 3M Arena. Then, all the remaining games count. But there are plenty of questions surrounding this team as we enter 2022, some that the team will need to answer for themselves as the season heads into it’s final months, and some that may remain unanswered as we move forward, at least for a few weeks potentially.
Let’s recap 2021:
The Gophers entered the 2021-22 season as one of the top teams in the nation on paper. They returned a Mike Richter Award winning goaltender, tons of veteran leadership and scoring, a trio of stars on the blue line, and a highly touted freshmen class. Then, the play on the ice actually began and some cracks in that façade appeared for the Gophers. The same issues with inconsistent play reared their heads as it has the last few seasons under Bob Motzko. Minnesota can look like a true NCAA Championship contender one night, and the next they look like a bottom of the pack Big Ten team. Solving that issue will go a long way to determining the Gophers fate in 2022.
Minnesota has not gotten the goaltending from Jack LaFontaine they had hoped for. The reigning Mike Richter Award winner has not looked consistently sharp all season and currently has a 2.76 goals against average and a save percent age of .898. Both are well short of last season’s stats. LaFontaine has been like the rest of the team mind boggling inconsistent. In a series against Ohio State in November LaFontaine struggled losing Friday night’s game 4-3 after allowing several weak goals. He came back Saturday to post a 2-0 shutout. In the Gophers final series of 2021 at Michigan LaFontaine was outstanding Friday as Minnesota cruised to an easy 6-1 win. The next night? The opposite as Michigan roared back to an easy 6-2 win that saw LaFontaine pulled in the second period. If the Gophers can get good Jack regularly in 2022, they have a chance to win the Big Ten and earn a 1 or 2 NCAA seed. Subpar Jack and it will be much tougher.
Minnesota has gotten decent offensive play from several of their veterans. Ben Meyers and Blake McLaughlin both lead the Gophers in scoring with 18 points a piece. The Gophers are averaging 3.4 goals per game, and a team leading nine have come off the stick of Bryce Brodzinski. All three top blue liners have contributed with Ryan Johnson sixth on the team in points with 10 and Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe right behind in 7th with 9 each. But all will need to do more to propel the Gophers upwards.
The newcomers for Minnesota have been much more of a mixed bag. The highlight? Freshman forward Mathew Knies has been a star for Minnesota. He currently is third on the team with 16 points and tied for 2nd with 7 goals. Less great has been the play of the rest of Minnesota’s freshmen. Chaz Lucius was hoped to be a sniper in the mold of Wisconsin’s Cole Caufield and it has taken him longer to adapt to the college game. He has also been hampered by several injuries, but Lucius has just 8 points in 12 games played. Minnesota hopes he continues to warm up and make a larger impact down the stretch. The rest of the offensively powered Gopher freshmen have yet to adapt to the college game. Rhett Pitlick leads the rest with five points, while Aaron Hugelin has three and Tristan Broz has just two. All will need to step up their games in the second half.
Despite the up and down nature of the first half of the season, the Gophers remain in decent shape. Minnesota sits in second place in the Big Ten with 19 points in ten conference games, just four points back of first place Michigan and with two games in hand. Ohio State is right on the Gophers heels with 18 points and Notre Dame has 16.
Questions for 2022?
We have gone over who has and has not produced at a high enough level for the Gophers. The question is, who can help fill some of those gaps in points, and can Minnesota find a way to put a few decent games back to back. Minnesota has split their last five series dating back the start of November, and if they want to overtake Michigan and keep Ohio State off of their heels, they will need to find a way to win some of these series against Big Ten opponents, especially against the bottom of the conference teams. That starts next weekend as the Gophers face off against Michigan State in East Lansing for the first time this season. Minnesota needs at absolute minimum a split, but four or more points would be a significant boon to their conference championship hopes. Additionally thinking about pairwise and NCAA Tournament considerations, any losses against bad teams start to become much more magnified this time of year, and given the Gophers non-conference struggles against their fellow in-state teams, they will need to have a better than average Big Ten season to overcome the built in deficit they have put themselves into. Minnesota currently sits 11th in the Pairwise rankings, good enough to feel relatively safe, but with plenty of time for movement either upwards, or downwards to a very tenuous spot.
What About the Schedule?
The Gophers have no favors in their 2022 schedule....which became much more tight after their season opening series against Alaska was postponed to January 14th and 15th after COVID issues with the Nanooks kept it from being played in October. Minnesota has no bye weeks the rest of the way. After this weekend’s exhibition games Minnesota will play 16 games over the next 8 weekends with all but the two games against the Nanooks being Big Ten matchups. The Gophers will face the Spartans four times and every other Big Ten squad twice ending the season in what will be a critical stretch with series at Ohio State and Penn State before finishing the regular season at home against Wisconsin where the Badgers will have a potential chance to play spoiler for any of Minnesota’s postseason hopes.
Minnesota will have no rest times built in. If players get injured there is no time to rest. Thus it will be imperative both for Minnesota to try and stay healthy, and if and when injuries crop up the Gophers can rely on their depth to step up.
The other huge question mark that absolutely no one knows the answer to will be COVID. So far Minnesota has been spared any postponements due to issues with the Gopher program, but with no open weekends any potential COVID issues that do crop up may result in either forfeits for the Gophers, despite the new Big Ten policies, or may result in playing 3 or possibly four games in a week. Obviously Minnesota’s opponents also could be impacted—it will be a major issue to watch the rest of the season.
Any other Issues?
Well yes in fact there is still one more major unforeseen question hanging over the second half of the Gopher season that will go a long way to determining what may happen. In case you have been living under a rock, the NHL stated in late December that they are no longer sending their players to the 2022 Olympics in February die to COVID postponements and a myriad of other issues. Thus, the US Olympic team needs to find a group of new players, and fast to represent the US in Beijing in just over a month. From the sounds of people in the know, it appears that the US may take the route of asking several college players to leave their teams midseason, and play for the US in China in February. Of the players who may be asked it appears that at least one and up to a few may be current Gophers.
Speculation already beginning that three current @GopherHockey players could be selected for Team USA and head to Beijing, thereby missing much of the February schedule. Thinking Brock Faber, Ryan Johnson and Ben Meyers are the most likely candidates to wear red, white & blue.— Jess Myers (@JessRMyers) December 28, 2021
In fact Gopher coach Bob Motzko expects some of his players to be on that roster. As he told the Star Tribune’s Megan Ryan in an article in Monday’s paper:
It’s going to affect us. I just don’t know how deep,” Motzko said. “But if any of our guys have the opportunity at this stage in [their] life … we’re going to open the door for them to go. And I’ve told USA Hockey our roster is wide open for them. Take what they have to take, and we’ll live with it.
Obviously having several of your star players out for at minimum three weekends may definitely change expectations for the rest of your season. Of course Minnesota would not be the only team that would be hampered by these decisions—Michigan has several star players as well who could be asked by Team USA and maybe even Canada, but there is no doubt if USA Hockey goes this route that the season will be significantly changed.
We should know more here in the near future as obviously a team needs to be named soon to get logistics prepared. Men’s action begins on February 10th in Beijing and goes through the 20th so any Gophers who went to play would probably miss at bare minimum the home series against Michigan State and the road series at Ohio State and Penn State with hopes to be back to close out the regular season against Wisconsin. Of course there is that whole crazy China Covid quarantine policy that could see athletes potentially stranded in the country for weeks if they were to test positive while in the country...so you know nothing could go wrong there.
As the 2022 portion of the schedule arrives, the Gophers despite their inconsistent 2021 portion of the schedule sit in decent position with ample opportunity to place themselves in a position to compete for both the Big Ten title and make noise at the NCAA Tournament. But it will most likely need to overcome some fairly significant hurdles placed in their way—many completely out of their control to do so. We will soon get a look at just how mentally tough this team is, and if it will be enough to get them in a place to live up to the lofty expectations set for them before the season, or if like many of the rest of Minnesota college and professional sports teams when crunch time comes they find themselves unable to be up to the task.