Minneapolis, Minn. — Freshman Logan Cooley stole the spotlight in the Gopher hockey team’s 4-0 season opening win against the Lindenwood Lions.
The third overall pick by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2022 NHL Draft, Cooley got the best of the Lions in their first Division I hockey appearance with a two-goal, three-point night in his collegiate debut with the Gophers.
“It felt awesome, I mean, practicing on it for the past few weeks before the game also helped,” Cooley said about practicing on the home rink after playing some international hockey. “But I didn’t really notice too much of a difference, and it was good to be out there and I had a lot of fun.”
The 18-year-old center — who had a 27-goal, 75-point campaign in 51 games last season with the U.S. National Development Program U-18 team — displayed exactly why he’s a top prospect. Cooley ranked fifth in Scott Wheeler of The Athletic’s top 50 U-23 NHL prospect rankings from this summer. And he played in the World Juniors with the USA U-18 and U-20 teams, collecting 16 points in 11 games.
“(Cooley) was awful good tonight, and I think he’s been doing that his whole life...let’s hope he likes this building and keeps that going,” said head coach Bob Motzko, who is now 5-0 in home openers with the Gophers.
Cooley looked comfortable all night long on this new stage, centering a line with Montreal Canadiens prospect Rhett Pitlick and St. Louis Blues prospect Jimmy Snuggerud.
The kid's alright pic.twitter.com/RLzGtgDIAC— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 2, 2022
“No, definitely not,” Cooley laughed after making college hockey look easy in his debut. “Good to get the first one in tonight...you’re always looking for that first one, so for that to come in the first game, I’m pretty happy about it.”
Cooley’s persistence and patience was on full display in both goals, especially in his first goal as a Gopher in the second period where he scored on the backhand off his own rebound after an unbelievable pass by Pitlick.
#Gopher fans... meet Logan Cooley— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 2, 2022
(that pass from Pitter tho) pic.twitter.com/5FcnWr4SLN
“Just trying to get it on net as fast as possible, obviously, he made a really nice save on that, I don’t know how he read that, but just trying to chip it over his pad and luckily it went in,” Cooley said.
And even though Cooley and Snuggerud were frequent linemates on the U-18 team, the connection between Cooley and Pitlick became the dominant storyline by the end of the night.
“I thought he was outstanding tonight,” Motzko said. “I thought Pitlick really had something going, so they had a little chemistry, away we went.”
Both goals scored by Cooley materialized because of the effort from Pitlick, who made two slick passes to Cooley in the second and third period — both resulting in goals.
“Obviously you saw the pass that he made,” Cooley said of Pitlick. “He’s super skilled, really dynamic player, and he makes plays like that all the time in practice, too, so I wasn’t too surprised about that.”
Cooley was obviously in the spotlight, but the Gophers’ freshmen collectively had a strong performance.
“That was a good start to the year, all the freshmen came ready to play, which makes it a lot easier for us being leaders,” said Jaxon Nelson, who opened up the scoring with a first period goal and is one of three captains this season. ... “It’s a lot of fun watching them, you can learn from them even though they’re freshmen...it should be a good year to watch them all year.”
There’s a lot to like about the Gophers season opening performance, even though there’s, of course, areas they want to improve in. Motzko said they’re “real pleased after game one” because it gives them a starting point.
The Gophers held a 34-16 advantage in the shot department and controlled the game in terms of possession and offensive zone time. Special teams came through, too, with the Gophers scoring twice on the man advantage and the penalty kill standing tall three different times.
“Liked it, we kept three units going...some guys need to see some film but overall I like some of the things we did on it,” Motzko said. “(It’s just the) starting point, it’s just scratching right now.”
The Gophers can still improve in both the offensive and defensive zone. Motzko specifically mentioned the volume of shots they took that went wide and how they lacked a net front presence. It’s something they want to look at on film because he said there weren’t sacrifices taken, so Lions goaltender Trent Burnham’s vision wasn’t taken away.
“Those are things that happen early in the year that you have to get on top of and cure as a hockey team to play at an elite level and maybe at times we’re thinking too much offense tonight versus a team game,” Motzko said.
And Nelson said they need to “clean some things up” in the defensive zone. Luckily when the Gophers made defensive errors, Justen Close made the save. Close stopped all 16 shots in his shutout performance, picking up right where he left off after having a solid stretch last season.
“(Close) looked good in there, he was calm and he controlled a few loose pucks that were around where he calmed things down down,” Motzko said.
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Matthew Knies, who had a team-leading five shots, was visible and all over the ice in the win. Knies dished the puck to Nelson in the slot for the first goal and then tipped a shot in front of the net to give the Gophers a 3-0 lead.
New season, same Kniesy pic.twitter.com/dEQ4lA2anc— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 2, 2022
“Physical, gets around the net and is going to make things happen,” Motzko said. “It’s the Knies that we became accustomed to, it’s how he plays in practice. When you come everyday with the same intensity and that work ethic, it just carries over, and Matt’s got that.”
The Gophers hope to build on their promising first performance with another game against the Lions Sunday night.