Gophers to play defending champions to open season

Minnesota will play 2018 NCAA champion University of Minnesota Duluth in its first matchup of the season.

Sophomore forward Rem Pitlick skates with the puck on Saturday, Dec. 2 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

Ellen Schmidt, Daily File Photo

Sophomore forward Rem Pitlick skates with the puck on Saturday, Dec. 2 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

Jack Warrick

It is a new era of men’s hockey for the Gophers. The team now has one of the newest coaches in the athletics department, a situation it hasn’t been in since before the new millennium.

Head coach Bob Motzko said the first couple of weeks in practice were “quiet” as his coaching staff took the reins in Dinkytown. 

“We’re behind a tad, but the biggest reason is the first two weeks it was two camps, and they were staring at us and we were staring at them,” Motzko said. “It was an awkward feeling-out.”

Motzko said the team eventually got comfortable, but is still behind going into the first game of the season. The quiet weeks of practice will be disrupted this weekend as Minnesota heads to Duluth on Saturday to play defending NCAA champions University of Minnesota Duluth.

“I wish we had more practice,” Motzko said. “We are going to have a true test … playing Duluth this week. From a coaching standpoint, looking at this group that we inherited, where do we sit? I think it’s going to answer a lot of questions for us.”

Experienced forwards, inexperienced defensemen

The new coaching staff at Minnesota inherited a team experienced in the forwards and goaltending side, but inexperienced at the defense position. The Gophers have five underclassmen defense out of the eight on the roster. 

The Gophers will bring back four of its top five point scorers, all forwards, from last year. Rem Pitlick tallied the most points on the team last year with 31, while captain Brent Gates Jr. had the third most with 26. Casey Mittelstadt, who would be a sophomore this year, left to play in the NHL last year with the Buffalo Sabres. He had 30 points in his only season with Minnesota.

“We definitely have an older forward core, and I think that really puts emphasis on us succeeding and trying to show the younger guys what to do and how to play the game, since they’re new to this level of play,” senior forward Tyler Sheehy said. 

The Gophers have two third-round 2018 NHL draft pick forwards in freshmen Blake McLaughlin and Sampo Ranta.

The Gophers return an experienced goaltender in Eric Schierhorn this year. Schierhorn goes into his senior year with 101 games played and two Big Ten goaltender of the year awards. 

First matchup with Duluth

The University of Minnesota Duluth defeated Notre Dame 2-1 in the NCAA championship in April. The team will have three of its top point scorers returning, including defenseman Scott Perunovich, who had the most assists with 25.

The Gophers played the Bulldogs once last year. They lost 4-3 in overtime in Duluth.

“I think we’re just excited to get going. Obviously, its a tough matchup to start,” forward Darian Romanko said. “They’re going to be raising their banner on Saturday night, so that should give us a little extra jump in our step.”

Minnesota will play the University of Minnesota Duluth at Amsoil Arena in Duluth on Saturday, and then the team will come home to 3M Arena at Mariucci on Sunday to play the season home opener.