This Week in Big Ten Hockey: Top-ranked Minnesota keeps winning, ‘very passionate about playing each game’

Minnesota celebrates one of its 10 wins to start the 2020-21 season (photo: Brad Rempel).

It’s the new year and the second half of the schedule is underway, but No. 1 Minnesota is continuing the same streak it started in November.

The Gophers started off the second half of their campaign with a gritty sweep of Arizona State at home and now look forward to the first marquee Big Ten series of 2021 when they travel to Wisconsin this weekend.

Minnesota did most its scoring in a short span during the first game back from break, scoring three goals in five minutes early in the second period of an eventual 4-1 victory.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko said he saw some rust that had developed during the holiday break.

“For half the game, we were good tonight, and that half was enough for us,” he said. “For half the game, we were all over the map, but that’s what happens when you’re off 24 days. You can’t duplicate conditioning and you can’t duplicate game time.”

Amazingly, the game time between the 4:53 mark of the first period when Arizona State took a 1-0 lead and the 2:58 mark of the second when Mike Koster tied it up was the only point this season that the Gophers have trailed.

“Being down 1-0 is not adversity, that’s hockey,” Motzko said. “We took a penalty and they found a little seeing-eye shot through and were very efficient on their power play.”

Koster, a freshmen defenseman from Chaska, Minn., has been key for the Gophers as of late. With fellow defensemen Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Brock Faber at the World Junior Championship, Koster was thrust into a larger role and has responded with two goals and two assists so far this year.

“In the four games, (Koster) took a monster role for us where we put him right into the first choir chair,” Motzko said. “He’s just been lights out for us. You can see how good of a player he is.”

During the first half of the season, and the first game against ASU, Minnesota rolled with senior Jack LaFontaine and his 1.00 GAA and .965 save percentage in net. Motzko gave sophomore Jared Moe the start on Monday in his first action since early February.

“(Moe) made a couple monster saves for us,” Motzko said, adding that he’s liked the spirit of his goaltender even with the limited playing time. “He’s been awesome. We’ve won some big games and he’s been the first guy out to congratulate (LaFontaine). He really had a good week of practice, came back after Christmas and he was digging in there and telling everybody, ‘I’m ready to play a game,’ and we had to get him in there.”

Moe’s win extended Minnesota’s start to a perfect 10-0 record, the program’s best start since the 1939-40 season. That team went on to go 18-0 and won an AAU national championship.

“The feeling around the locker room is very light,” Minnesota junior forward Blake McLaughlin said after Monday’s game. “We’re very passionate about playing each game and focusing on the game at hand, not looking too much forward. We’re keeping it very simple.”

This weekend the Gophers will play a Wisconsin team that won’t have been on the ice in competitive action in 36 days. Like Minnesota, the Badgers will also welcome back some key players from the World Juniors.

Michigan hopes full squad leads to another second-half run

Michigan currently sits 16 points behind Minnesota, so with a full squad are the Wolverines ready to start reeling in the Gophers?

Well, Michigan coach Mel Pearson is more interested in seeing if they can walk before they try to run.

“They’re running away with it,” Pearson said of Minnesota. “We just have to worry about ourselves and getting points every weekend. That’ll be the goal, just small goals, trying to get through every weekend and come out of it with points.”

Pearson said he was excited to put all the noise that came along with 2020, whether it be the late start or World Junior rosters, in the past and get everyone refocused for the second half.

His teams are no strangers to playing strong after New Year’s Day and with the talent that this year’s squad possesses, it could be more of the same.

“Normally in the first half, and I’ve always been this way with our staff, is to play everybody and try and get an idea of what you have,” Pearson said. “Our freshmen have taken a huge step forward, and usually that’s where you expect your biggest jump is with your first-year guys. They know what to expect now.”

Pearson added that he thought his veterans have been playing better than their numbers indicate.

“We had some great meetings in between the first and second halves and I like our team,” said Pearson. “I think we’re positioned to have a really good second half. Now, you’ve got to go out and do it.”

Michigan plays a home-and-home series with rival Michigan State this weekend.

Danton Cole’s Spartans come into the series after splitting with Penn State to start out their 2021.

“There’s a decent hockey team in there,” Cole said of Michigan after Monday’s win over the Nittany Lions. “We’re getting there, we’re going to keep improving, and there were a lot of good things over this weekend.”

Pearson said that any positive results against the Spartans this weekend would have to be earned, noting that they probably wouldn’t get many odd-man opportunities against a defensive-minded team.

“You have to grind it, and we have to embrace and love the grind,” Pearson said. “We’re not going to get much off the rush. We’re going to have to get pucks behind them and go get it.”

Nabbing a lead against the Spartans would be helpful, too.

“They’re another team that you’ve got to try and get out in front of and play with the lead and force them to come out of that style they play,” Pearson said.