MINNEAPOLIS — There are still four names written on the board from last year. The Minnesota Gophers lost the likes of Ben Meyers, Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker, three of their top five scorers last season, after their loss to Minnesota State Mankato in the Frozen Four. That meant if the team wanted to take a step forward this season after those departures, they needed players to step up.
Well, senior Jaxon Nelson and junior Mason Nevers — two players Motzko revealed are on the board — have been key cogs for the Gophers 10 games into the season. They both played a significant role in the Gophers 3-0 win at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Saturday night and the sweep against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend.
Midway through the second period, Nevers won a puck battle along the wall and then Brodzinski made a nice pass to a wide open Nelson, who went forehand-backhand to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead.
The size, the hands, the touch.— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 6, 2022
Jaxon Nelson has it all pic.twitter.com/AwuRgLjBTM
That goal doesn’t happen without the pressure from Nevers and pass from Brodzinski. The assist was Nevers’ seventh point of the season, and he’s just six points away from tying his point total from last year. Nelson, the second star of the game, has two goals and eight points through 10 games — two points from tying his point totals from last year, although he had been injured 13 games.
“Those two of the four that are really stepping up, playing monster hockey for us,” head coach Bob Motzko said of Nelson and Nevers.
There’s been high praise for Nelson specifically, rightfully so, with how he’s performed thus far.
“He’s an athlete and he’s playing with some fire right now,” Motzko said of Nelson.
Nelson made a great play on Friday night to set up Nevers, who was the third star in the first game of the series, for the first goal.
You can't leave @MasonNevers that wide open...— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 5, 2022
you just can't. pic.twitter.com/soEJ73xRAZ
They’re clicking as linemates and the 6-foot-4 Nelson, who had seven shots on goal Saturday, continues to be solid on both ends of the ice. It will be critical that he continues his success as the season moves along.
“There should be a lot of NHL teams looking at him and being excited about what he can bring to a table,” Nevers said about an undrafted Nelson after Friday night’s game. “He’s a whole 200-foot player, make skill plays as well and unbelievable linemate, too.”
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As Nelson scored that first goal, Brock Faber went down the tunnel after a hard hit. It ended up being reviewed, and Notre Dame’s Jesse Lansdell was slapped with a five-minute major and a game misconduct for contact to the head. Faber did eventually return after Motzko said he was double checked. On the power play, Jimmy Snuggerud fired a shot from the left circle that got past Bischel, and Matthew Knies found the loose puck in the crease for an easy tap in.
If there's a loose puck, @Matthew_Knies WILL find it. pic.twitter.com/JtA9jrwe5W— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) November 6, 2022
Knies and Snuggerud’s chemistry was especially evident on Friday night, and the line overall was once again dominant on Saturday. Logan Cooley was visible all night long and looked like a man on a mission trying to find the back of the net to end his rut. With three seconds left in the game, Cooley scored an empty net goal for insurance, which ended his eight-game goal drought, something Motzko said is “huge.”
Justen Close stopped all 21 shots in the contest after being robbed of a shutout a night earlier. It was a much more pro typical game between the Gophers and Fighting Irish after Minnesota put up 54 shots on Friday night.
“Well (it was) exactly what we knew, it was going to be a battle,” Motzko said. ... “It turned into an arm wrestling match. We won same battles and lost some and Close was good when we needed him.”
Despite Notre Dame’s response on Saturday and putting pressure on Minnesota in the final half of the third period, the Gophers had the edge in shots (31-21) and shot attempts (52-47) in the game and kept them from getting solid looks offensively. Ryan Johnson’s two assist night puts him at seven points on the season, and Jackson LaCombe’s point streak came to an end.
As far as the lineup, Charlie Strobel replaced John Mittlestadt. And Connor Kurth and Bryce Brodzinski swapped places.
Gophers unveil banner, looking ahead
The Gophers win on Saturday capped off a special night where they unveiled their 2022 Big Ten regular season championship banner.
There it is: #Gophers 2022 Big Ten regular season championship banner pic.twitter.com/xLKICRnouM— Aaron Heckmann (@aaron_heckmann) November 5, 2022
The Gophers (3-1, 7-3) will host Penn State (3-1, 9-1) on Thursday and Friday next week.