It may just be the regular season, but there’s no doubt that the Minnesota Gophers hockey team’s home-and-home series against Minnesota State Mankato this weekend has a deeper meaning.
The Gophers have seen their season end two years in a row against Mankato, and it’s the first time the two teams will meet in the regular season since 2018.
“I wish we were playing this later in the year, but we’re not,” head coach Bob Motzko said.
While Lindenwood put up a fight in the second game last Sunday — taking their first collegiate lead in the process at one point — they’re no where near the competition Minnesota State will be this weekend.
“It’s going to be great to show our young kids the intensity of a series,” Motzko said. “I’m more excited about that...it’s going to be a whole different intensity level for our young guys this week.”
To add another layer to it is the fact that the Gophers are still integrating their freshmen class, so getting systems down is a work in progress. The freshmen flourished in their first weekend of collegiate hockey, leading the Gophers to a 2-0 record to begin the season. But there’s still room for improvement as Motzko mentioned that they took too many long shifts and committed too bad penalties.
Matthew Knies said it’s important that the team is at “the top of their game” while Rhett Pitlick said the freshmen need to “stick to their game” this weekend.
The freshmen will have a bigger opportunity to showcase their talent and potential against Mankato. The trio of Pitlick, Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud will be one of the focal points in the series as the line dominated last weekend.
“I obviously see that both of them our great passers, and I think my speed as a player kind of contributes to the overall success to get our game play moving and just allowing our game to flow out,” Pitlick said of playing with them.
Cooley flew all over the ice in his four point debut weekend, good for Big Ten First Star of the Week honors.
Cooley and the other freshmen forwards displayed their knack for shooting the puck against Lindenwood, a mentality that will keep their momentum going.
“This group can shoot the puck,” Motzko said. “They’re going to get lots of points in their career. It’s really a special class. They’re just young. We’re going to need some time for this thing to gel.”
After icing everyone last weekend, the Gophers are going to start being a little more selective in their deployment moving forward. That’s especially true with league play approaching.
“Obviously they’re going to have to continue to perform to eat minutes like that, our whole lineup,” Motzko said. “Now we’ll start being a little more selective.”
The defensive core is at its peak with a blue line mainstay like Brock Faber and then freshman striving for roles. Think Ryan Chesley, Luke Mittlestadt and Cal Thomas.
That’s why Faber’s ice time will be a little lower this season after Motzko said him playing 30 minutes a night last season was too much.
“He’s going to be a much more effective player playing less minutes,” Motzko said. ...“We have other defensemen that can do some real heavy lifting.”
A point of emphasis on film Motzko said has been special teams, especially the penalty kill because of the roster turnover that took place this summer. Three of the Gophers’ top four penalty killers left — Ben Meyers, Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker — leaving a major hole.
“We are working all new penalty killers right now except for (Jaxon) Nelson into key roles and it might take awhile for that to happen,” Motzko said.
It’s just a process and it will take time for the Gophers to catch their stride.
“We like the direction everything is pointing, and we’ll be way different months from now,” Motzko said. “We just got to hold the fort for a month until it all starts to come together.”
HOW TO WATCH:
#5 Minnesota State Mavericks vs #2 Minnesota Gophers
Where: Fri: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis/ Sat: Mayo Clinic Event Center, Mankato
When: 7PM Friday/ 6PM Saturday
TV: Bally Sports North (Friday)/ Fox9+ (Saturday)
Stream: BallySports.com ; BTN+ ($$)(Friday)/ FloHockey ($$) Saturday
Radio: 1130AM/ 103.5 FM/ IHeart Radio App