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Minnesota Hockey: Matthew Knies’ overtime winner lifts Gophers past Michigan

The Gophers dominant third period effort was headlined by Jackson LaCombe’s game-tying goal with four minutes left

Matt Krohn

MINNEAPOLIS — With 44 seconds left on the clock in overtime and the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team on the power play, head coach Bob Motzko elected to take a timeout. The solution was clear: get the puck down low to Matthew Knies. It worked, well, sort of. After receiving the puck from Knies, Logan Cooley didn’t try to pass it back to Knies and instead shot the puck from the right circle that deflected off a defender.

The puck still found Knies.

The 20-year-old pounced on the loose puck that came directly to him and scored with 8.8 seconds remaining on the clock to lift the No. 2 Gophers over the No. 7/8 Michigan Wolverines and complete the comeback in their 4-3 win at 3M Arena At Mariucci on Friday night. It was another one of his typical goals just outside the crease. What wasn’t typical was the 4-on-3 opportunity, though. In fact, Motzko said it was so rare that the team “practiced it right there at the timeout.”

“That’s kind of the key to our whole overtime is getting Knies the puck…It’s so fun to watch him; obviously he’s such a good player,” Gophers defenseman Jackson LaCombe said. “Obviously anytime he has the puck, he can do something dangerous.”

Not only does Knies lead the Big Ten with five game-winning goals, but he leads Big Ten scoring with 15 goals and is fourth in points with 27. Knies is two goals away from tying Ben Meyers’ 17-goal campaign last year and just four short from tying Sampo Ranta’s 19 goals in the 2020-21 season.

Roughly 930 miles away from Mariucci, you can surely bet that someone in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization was watching the game and saw his dominant three-point performance. Among the packed crowd was Knies’ parents, who made the trip from Arizona. He said they should bring him to a “nice dinner or something” after delivering one of his best games of the season.

He was noticeable with and without the puck, making plays happen and contributing in both ends outside of scoring two goals and assisting on another. After Michigan’s Mark Estapa was handed a five-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head in the last minute of the first period, Knies drove to the net on the power play and lost the puck, but Jimmy Snuggerud was on the doorstep and found the back of the net.

Knies scored the Gophers’ second goal of the game in his usual fashion *checks notes* near the blue paint after cleanly beating Keaton Pehrson to the net. Eric Ciccolini eventually tied it up at one apiece with eight minutes left in the second.

Knies couldn’t have picked a better game to showcase his full-fledged effort with the likes of Adam Fantilli, Mackie Samoskevich, Dylan Duke, Rutger Mcgroarty and Luke Hughes, among others, in town on the visiting Wolverines. A total of 24 NHL prospects played in the game. It was a much different look compared to the first series these teams played against eachother due to absences on both sides. The Wolverines played without Fantilli and several other key regulars back in November. The Maroon and Gold were notably without Cooley and Justen Close.

The Gophers are now .500 in games decided in overtime or a shootout (3-2 in overtime, 0-1 in the shootout).

It was that timeout in overtime, though, that was crucial because the Gophers had been outshot 3-to-1 to that point and hadn’t materialized anything. That timeout in some cases would have been used already after Michigan scored a pair of goals from Fantilli and Gavin Brindley a mere 15 seconds apart to take a 3-2 lead with roughly three minutes left in the middle frame. Motzko said he didn’t consider using a timeout there despite Michigan scoring so close together and gaining momentum. After all, it was that short span filled with untimely errors that forced the Gophers to pull off a comeback in the first place.

“We just had that 30-second lapse where we turned two pucks over between the dots down behind the net,” Motzko said. “You do that against a team like that, they’re going to make you pay.”

It was a comeback that shouldn’t have been required of them. The Gophers outplayed Michigan almost the entire game aside from a few small sequences. The Wolverines had registered one shot through the game’s first 10 minutes. The second period was the closest Michigan got to taking control of the game, and the Gophers still seemed to maintain momentum.

“I felt that we deserved to win,” Motzko said. “We made a couple mistakes to get down, and we came back. I thought we had a terrific third period, and the right guys got the puck, but I thought we did enough to deserve to win that game.”

It didn’t matter what the Gophers did in the third period because the puck didn’t seem to want to cross the goal line. Or ‘legally’ at least. Knies had a goal waved off because the official blew the whistle despite the puck being loose and not covered by Wolverines goaltender Erik Portillo. It was a goal that Motzko said should have counted, which Knies also implied when he said he felt the puck was loose. The same thing happened to Michigan, who had a goal waved off in overtime after the whistle was quickly blown, again, although it wasn’t as much of a clear cut goal as Knies’ was.

Mike Koster hit the post seconds later before a shot from Aaron Hughlen hit Portillo’s mask. Then Cooley and Snuggerud had a 2-on-1 odd man rush, but it didn’t yield anything. Cooley registered his first shot on net at the 7:44 mark of the third period with the Wolverines clearly watching him like a hawk and playing extra physical with the freshman center.

Another shot by Koster came within inches, but it went just wide of the net, and then another shot went off the post for the Gophers — the latest one thanks to Cal Thomas. The Gophers outshot Michigan 16-8 and shots attempts were 29-13 in favor of Minnesota in the third period.

“I think once we came out for that third, we had a little jump and energy to us. It kind of led us to dominate that period,” Knies said.

Finally, with 4:20 left in the game, LaCombe tied the game with a one-timer from just above the right circle.

“I kind of never know what he’s doing. If he’s shooting or passing,” Knies said of LaCombe. “He kind of fakes me out, too…clutch player.”

Motzko added: “When he hits the net, he’s dangerous. But he’s a .300 batter, so we’re working on his batting average because when he hits it, it’s in.”

Along with LaCombe and Brock Faber, who were nominated for the 2023 Hobey Baker Award, Ryan Johnson was nominated for this year’s Hockey Humanitarian Award.

The only reason the game stayed close though was because of Portillo, who singlehandedly kept the Wolverines in it all game. It was unquestionably one of the best goaltending performances the Gophers have seen all year. The Buffalo Sabres prospect finished the game saving 40 of 44 for a .917 save percentage. Although the Gophers hit the pipe four times and the net uncharacteristically kept falling off its moorings, Portillo had a number of Grade-A saves throughout the game.

On the other end, Close stopped 31 of 34 shots for a .912 save percentage. Knies said Close played “unbelievable” in the win.

“He’s carrying us from the back end. He gets the praise that he deserves…wonderful saves, obviously they had some top-end players that got some clear looks there, and we had some miscommunication on the D-end,” Knies said of Close, who was recently named to the 2023 Mike Richter Award Watch List.

Motzko said these close games are important to play in, and the focus is ensuring the team is ready for playoff hockey.

“If we happen to collect a trophy on the way, we’ll collect it,” Motzko said. “But it’s about getting your team ready to go down the stretch. We got nine (games) to go to continue to fine tune our game to get ready for the playoffs.”

Junior Carl Fish and senior Colin Schmidt played in their season debuts on Friday night. They both played “well” according to Motzko, who revealed an interesting tidbit of information that eludes to Schmidt potentially seeing postseason action despite not playing this season until now. That would leave one forward spot left for either John Mittelstadt, Charlie Strobel or Garrett Pinoniemi — in order of likelihood.

“We have to take a look at him because he might be a big ingredient for us in the playoffs,” Motzko said of Schmidt. “We’re looking at our roster…we got nine games to continue to fine tune this thing.”