Gophers hockey hosts Michigan State after retaking Big Ten lead

The Gophers men's hockey team is off to a 10-0 start, its best since 1940, after beating Arizona State Monday night 6-4 to complete a series sweep. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

It couldn’t have been a much better weekend for the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team.

After giving up 12 goals two weeks ago and getting swept by Wisconsin on their home ice, the Gophers responded in a big way at Notre Dame. The Gophers swept the Irish in a pair of 3-0 wins, Jack LaFontaine had his best weekend of the season with two shutouts and Minnesota moved back atop the Big Ten at 13-5, 39 points.

They have a two-point lead over the Badgers for the Big Ten title, with two series to play after their trip to Penn State next weekend got canceled due to COVID-19 issues with the Nittany Lions. The Gophers swear they won’t be watching, but they’ll be rooting for the Fighting Irish this weekend as they travel to Wisconsin.

The regular season champion gets a first round bye for the Big Ten Tournament, which will be held at Notre Dame.

"We’re focused on ourselves. We need to focus on ourselves and just keep winning games. The more we win, the better position we’ll put ourselves in at the end of the season, and that’s the main goal," defenseman Matt Staudacher said.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko joked that his team had plenty of intensity coming back to practice on Monday, saying they could’ve won the Stanley Cup.

But all the talk after sweeping Notre Dame, and deservedly so, was about LaFontaine. He’s a candidate for the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter Award, and he earned Big Ten First Star of the Week honors after two shutouts. He’s the first Gophers goalie to record consecutive shutouts in two road games, making 52 saves on the weekend.

"We’ve been seeing it for a year and a half, since last Christmas. We saw him at the top of his game this past weekend. It just looked easy. He was so just calm and cool. He was just dialed in, he’s been the backbone of our group this year," Motzko said.

LaFontaine leads the nation with 15 wins, and is second in the country with five shutouts. He’s an alternate captain and ranks third nationally with a 1.56 goals against average, and fourth with a .943 save percentage.

The Gophers haven’t had a goalie post consecutive shutouts since 1941. Staudacher said LaFontaine is one of the team’s hardest workers.

"Everything he’s gotten this year, he’s earned. He was a pretty easy decision to put a letter on his shoulder at the beginning of the year, Staudacher said.

The Gophers also have one of the top scorers in the country in Sampo Ranta, who had three points at Notre Dame to earn Big Ten Third Star of the Week. Ranta had goals in both wins, and now has a career-high 14 on the season, which is tied for second in the country.

Minnesota hosts Michigan State this weekend, having already earned a road sweep back in early December with 3-1 and 4-2 victories. The Gophers are 8-4 at 3M at Mariucci Arena this season, but have lost two straight.

As long as they win, the Gophers control their path to the Big Ten regular season title. Even if they won’t say it publicly, eyes will be on the Wisconsin/Notre Dame series while they aim to take care of business against Michigan State.

Minnesota has a two-point lead over Wisconsin with four games to play. The Badgers have three games remaining.

"We’re coming off a really good weekend, our guys have to respond. We can’t have a setback right now. This is a big weekend, and our group has a little fire in their belly and we show up," Motzko said.