MINNEAPOLIS — The No. 1 University of Minnesota Gophers hockey team’s defensive core features two of the nation’s top defensemen in Minnesota Wild prospect Brock Faber and Anaheim Ducks prospect Jackson LaCombe. So when one goes down to injury, concern is naturally the response.
“We got really quiet,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said about the injury LaCombe sustained in the first 10 minutes of practice on Thursday before drills had even started, according to Motzko.
With Faber out of the lineup due to injury in last weekend’s tilt against Penn State, the Gophers responded with a sweep. Well LaCombe is out this weekend in the final series of the regular season, but the good news, Motzko said, is that he will return sooner than originally expected and is out “a couple of weeks.”
Yet, once again, the Gophers responded to the absence of one of their top defenders in a 4-0 shutout win over the No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes inside 3M Arena At Mariucci on Friday night.
Ironically, Minnesota’s defensive core from top to bottom was the cast who paved the way to their sixth win in seven games. The Gophers were sound defensively, allowing just 23 shots in the win. While Justen Close earned his 23-save shutout performance, the Buckeyes had little quality to show for in their shot output.
“It’s the deepest D-core as I’ve ever had or ever will have,” Motzko said. “It won’t come around again.”
That’s saying something. In fact, it’s a reality for the Gophers and why this season is so important. The Gophers’ backend didn’t just hold their own defensively, but they took the wheel on a team headlined with top offensive talent up front. In his first game back from injury, Faber drove hard to the net and scored five hole from the blue paint on Buckeyes’ goaltender Jakub Dobes to start the scoring at the 7:59 mark of the second period after a give-and-go with Rhett Pitlick near the right circle.
O CAPTAIN— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) February 25, 2023
MY CAPTAIN pic.twitter.com/uH4fATaA6w
“That was a critical goal for us,” Motzko said.
With a game left and despite two absences, Faber’s notched 22 points in the regular season so far — eight points up from his offensive output in the 2021-22 campaign.
“He’s a big-time player,” Koster said of Faber. “(In) big-time moments, he stepped up for us big time. I don’t think they were holding him out this weekend. He was pretty pumped to play.”
It was indeed a game-changing moment since the Gophers couldn’t get the puck past Dobes in the first half of the game despite three power play opportunities. Although, in fairness, Minnesota generated four shots on the first man advantage of the game. And they did weather the storm after a slow start in the game’s opening minutes.
It was absolute madness from there on out. We’re not talking about Dobes hitting the net of its moorings for a fifth time later in the game after it happened four times in the first period, which eventually resulted in a delay of game minor. Rather, it was three goals in a span of two minutes and seven seconds.
Mike Koster stepped up offensively with a pair of goals in the absence of LaCombe. Motzko said Koster’s strong play isn’t a revelation as his trajectory has been climbing for awhile.
Koster ripped the puck past Dobes high blocker from the high slot for his first goal of the contest on a 5-on-3 man advantage to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead in his 100th career game with 3:46 remaining in the middle frame. Logan Cooley, who notched two assists on the night, leads NCAA in assists with 31 — one more than Michigan’s Adam Fantilli. He’s fourth overall in NCAA scoring with 46 points, which is two ahead of linemate Jimmy Snuggerud
No. 4 on the year for No. 4!— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) February 25, 2023
In his 100th career game too pic.twitter.com/aJrQhDvOJC
That goal wasn’t enough for Koster as he scored one more en route to his first four-point performance. Before he did, though, the Gophers took a 3-0 lead 37 seconds later on the power play when Snuggerud one-timed a pass at the bottom of the left circle from Koster, which beat Dobes blocker side again.
“It felt like a playoff game – almost,” Koster said.
Koster double dipped for his second tally of the night — this time at five-on-five — when his shot from the top of the left circle found its way past Dobes glove side.
“Just so much energy, I didn’t even know what to do,” Koster said of his celly. “I was just excited. ... I don’t even know if I want to see it to be honest with you.”
MIKEY IS FEELING IT pic.twitter.com/fgzklhNYSW— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) February 25, 2023
“Every goal I’ve seen him score this year, it’s the same celly,” Cooley quipped. “You can’t really chirp a guy who had four points tonight.”
It went in about two seconds after the power play, so the Gophers finished with two power plays goal on the night against the No. 1 penalty killing team in the country. What led to that success?
“I think the biggest thing is we were keeping it simple,” Koster said.
While Aaron Huglen didn’t record a point, he was especially noticeable on the third line with Connor Kurth and Rhett Pitlick.
“The little quiet behind the scenes for us is that we’re starting to get really good play out of that line,” Motzko said. “High-level play.”
Motzko said Huglen’s game is peaking. In fact, Huglen is becoming the Gophers’ glue guy, the one who does all the little things right that sometimes go unnoticed — similar to the Wild’s Freddy Gaudreau.
They’ll need his impact again in Saturday night’s regular season finale where the Gophers will look to keep the foot on the gas heading into the playoffs.
“We celebrated it for 10 minutes or whatever it was, but obviously we have goals we want to achieve this year,” Koster said of the Gophers claiming the Big Ten regular season title, “and I think the biggest thing is we understand that we need to keep taking steps going into the tournament.”