MINNEAPOLIS — There’s a lot to look forward to as the season progresses, but it’s the chemistry of the Minnesota Gophers’ most dangerous, high-flying offensive line that needs to be placed on high alert, especially as they get more comfortable with each other.
We’re talking about the trio of Matthew Knies (TOR), Logan Cooley (ARI) and Jimmy Snuggerud (STL), the line that is paying dividends early and took charge in the No. 3 ranked Gophers 4-1 win in their Big Ten home opener at 3M Arena at Mariucci against the No. 12 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As head coach Bob Motzko said, “they’re gaining confidence,” an understatement to say the least.
“It’s been wonderful,” Knies said of the line’s chemistry. “Those two guys are obviously really skilled players, starting to learn how to play like that, get them the puck, make their day easier on them. The talk, the chemistry on the bench has been good. I’m happy and it’s definitely a privilege to play with those two.”
Knies and Snuggerud’s connection delivered the Gophers goals No. 3 and 4 in the first of game of the series, and the chemistry between them was extra special on Saturday night because of those exciting goals.
The line was bound to score after producing a ton of scoring chances throughout the first two periods. Case in point: the trio generated 19 shots in the game and that doesn’t even take into account their shot attempts. The line hasn’t even reached its peak, given it’s still early in the season.
With a 2-0 lead and all the momentum in their favor, a no-look, behind-the-back pass from Knies landed right on the stick of Snuggerud, who cashed in for his seventh goal of the season. It was also Jackson LaCombe’s 11th point of the season, which is tied for the team lead with Snuggerud. LaCombe also played another strong 200-foot game overall.
More like Matthew Kn-eyes in the back of his head pic.twitter.com/L1fWX9qTHd— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 5, 2022
“I heard him screaming and made a good play, obviously it’s a on-side one-timer,” Knies said. “That’s a hell of shot he had there, so really happy for him.”
It didn’t take long for them to connect again, in fact, it took just four minutes and 17 seconds for them to find each other.
After Knies got his stick slashed on a breakaway, the Gophers opted to take the power play instead of the penalty shot.
“I told the guys upstairs, I’m not probably the best penalty shootout guy,” said Knies, who was happy the team elected for the power play late in the game. ... “I’m happy they didn’t embarrass me out there, put me out there by myself.”
Just 13 seconds later, Notre Dame committed another penalty, a cross-checking minor that gave the Gophers a lengthy 5-on-3. After Cooley’s shot from the right circle was blocked, Knies found the puck and set up a one-timer for a wide open Snuggerud.
The 89-92-81 line is BUZZING pic.twitter.com/11DE0DD9VU— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 5, 2022
Snuggerud has become one of the Gophers’ most lethal players and tonight was a great example why. It was his team-leading eighth goal of the season, and he registered 11, yes, 11, shots in the contest and was all over the ice.
“He’s one heck of a shooter, so it’s going to be hard to compete with that guy, especially with his wrister and one timer, but I’m going to put some pressure on him for sure,” Knies said about tying the team lead in goals before Snuggerud scored twice to take it back.
What are Snuggerud and Cooley like off the ice?
“They’re like little two mice,” Knies said. “I can’t really get them to calm down or sit down by each other, so they’re always roaming around.”
Knies has been right up there with Snuggerud this season with six goals and 10 points himself, which is the third highest on the team. He scored a shorthanded, breakaway tally to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead in the second period before those two assists to Snuggerud in the third.
Knies made a great individual effort to score the Gophers’ first shorthanded goal of the season and beat Ryan Bischel five hole.
“I tried that a few times in practice (and) it worked out for me pretty well,” Knies said. “Kind of a no-brainer when I came down on him.”
Minnesota’s special teams performance was a major factor in the game, going 4-for-4 on the penalty kill and adding a shorthanded and power play goal.
Justen Close saved 24 of 25 shots for a .960 save percentage, several of those being big stops on the penalty kill. But Notre Dame ultimately erased his shutout bid by scoring with 46 seconds left in the game.
“He’s dynamite back there,” Nevers said of Close. “Calm, cool and collective, and he’s just got it.”
After a scoreless first period that saw Bischel stop 13 shots, including several Grade-A scoring chances, it appeared the game was bound to be a goalie battle. Bischel stopped 71 of 72 shots in a series against Michigan State a week earlier and threw every shot aside with ease in the opening period, but the Gophers found ways to get past him. Even though Bischel allowed four goals before a mercy pull, he left the game with 45 saves and a .918 save percentage, which kept the Fighting Irish from being blown out in the contest.
It was Mason Nevers who opened up the scoring almost seven minutes into the middle frame after Connor Kurth — who recorded his first collegiate assist on the goal — sustained possession in the offensive zone and sent it down low. Notre Dame defenseman Zach Plucinski saw the puck go right past his stick to Jaxon Nelson, who fed it to a wide open Nevers, who buried it glove side on Bischel to give the Gophers the 1-0 lead.
“There should be a lot of NHL teams looking at him and being excited about what he can bring to a table,” Nevers said of Nelson. “He’s a whole 200-foot player, make skill plays as well and unbelievable linemate, too.”
It was Nevers and Nelson’s, sixth and seventh point, respectively, this season.
“It is critical you get the first goal on Notre Dame,” Motzko said about this matchup usually resulting in one goal games. “This is a movie we’ve seen with them, it is a fight to the first goal.”
The Gophers are ranked No. 3 in the nation — dropping two spots — after splitting the Big Ten season opening series against Ohio State last weekend. But they rebounded against Notre Dame with a favor in shots (54-25) — something Motzko didn’t expect — shot attempts (75-46) and undoubtedly scoring chances, too, in their dominant win.
“No, honestly, that’s surprising with how defensive of a team they are,” Knies said of the team firing 54 shots by the end of the game. “I think we outplayed them. I think there was a lot of work ethic in our room, playing below the goal line and getting pucks to the net. I think that’s kind of what broke them down. I think that’s what kind of took over the game for us.”
They’ll look for the sweep over Notre Dame on Saturday night when they’re raising the 2022 Big Ten regular season championship banner.