Gopher hockey stays at No. 1 after first loss, split at Wisconsin
MINNEAPOLIS - Bob Motzko knew the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team would lose at some point.
The No. 1-ranked Gophers went to Wisconsin last weekend with a 10-0 record, a 12-game win streak dating back to last season and program's best start in more than 80 years. He said at some point, they’ll get punched in the nose and then they’ll have to respond.
Minnesota took that punch to the nose, metaphorically and physically, in a 3-1 loss to the Badgers last Saturday night. Their response was a 5-3 win over Wisconsin 24 hours later. They got all five goals from different players, and Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Bryce Brodzinski had multi-point nights.
"We stood to the challenge and battled in that game and got rewarded with a win. That’s what we needed to see when our backs are against the wall. Our leadership took charge," Motzko said. "We had to lay it on our leaders and they did it."
It was important to bounce back from their first loss of the season. It was equally important to not carry a two-game losing streak into this weekend against Notre Dame.
"Starting the season out as hot as we did, I think it was kind of good for us to get a little slice of humble pie and just know that we might lose a couple games this year," McLaughlin said. "I think we kind of got a little too comfortable just thinking we were going to win every game or just go into the game thinking we were going to win rather than putting forth the work to win the game, so that was huge."
Maybe as important, though the team won’t admit it, Minnesota retained the No. 1 spot in the national polls after the weekend split.
"We’re not too caught up in it right now, we know it’s a long season and we still have a lot of work to do. It’s nice, but we’re not finished yet. We’re not content with it," Cullen Munson said.
Munson is right. The Gophers are 11-1 and still have eight regular season series to play. That’s 16 more games, meaning the midway point comes after this weekend’s series against Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish visit Minneapolis this weekend with a 5-6-1 record, including a 3-4-1 mark in Big Ten play after earning a series split last weekend with Arizona State. The Gophers are expecting a battle. All but one of the last 13 games have been decided by one goal, and the outlier was due to an empty-net goal in a one-goal game.
"We’re walking right into one-goal games, why is it going to change now after 13 straight? That’s how I view them," Motzko said. "We’re in for a tug of war this weekend."
McLaughlin said the weekend series will be about staying disciplined, and capitalizing on scoring chances when they come. Notre Dame generally doesn’t allow many.
"They’re a tough team to play. They’re really structured and they like to sit back and kind of pounce on our turnovers. They’ve got guys who can make you pay if you take a chance," McLaughlin said.
Motzko says he doesn’t post standings in the Minnesota locker room. He does his best to keep his nose out of the rankings, though they ultimately can’t be ignored.
The Gophers now carry the weight of being the No. 1-ranked team in the country, even if there’s still half the season left. It’s up to them to maintain that spot.
"Yeah, there are people poking at us and yeah, that means we’re doing good things. I can tell you from being on the other side of it yeah, people get up to play the Gophers, you’re darn right they do. That’s our job, be up for the challenge," Motzko said.