Episode 32: Gophers hockey bounces back with sweep over Notre Dame

In this week’s episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” our staff discusses the Gophers men’s hockey team’s latest series against Notre Dame, Jack LaFontaine’s rise at goaltender and the team’s upcoming matchup against Michigan State.

Nolan O'Hara and Julianna Landis

INTRO MUSIC PLAYS 

NOLAN O’HARA: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” presented by the Minnesota Daily. I’m your host Nolan O’Hara. This week we’re going to shift into talking about the men’s hockey team. The Gophers are currently the fourth-ranked team in the country and are coming off a sweep of Notre Dame. So today I’m here with Anna Landis, our hockey beat reporter, how’s it going Anna?

ANNA LANDIS: It’s good. I’m glad to be back in the office. It’s I know we spoke about this before recording but it’s been quite a long time. So it’s good to be back and good to be talking about the Gophers. And they’re doing pretty well recently.

O’HARA: Right for sure. It’s definitely not here as frequently as we used to be in pre-COVID times. But it is good to be in the office here again today. And I’m happy to have you here to talk about the team so far this year. It’s we haven’t, we haven’t talked hockey on the podcast. So I’m excited to go into that a little bit. And for anyone who hasn’t been following the team super closely, the Gophers are currently ranked fourth and are 16-5. They’ve been ranked in the top-10 all year long and were sitting at No. 1 for a good chunk of the season because they started the season 10-0. And most recently, they swept Notre Dame for a pair of 3-0 wins. It came after the ugly series against Wisconsin last the week before. And I kind of want to first talk about the series against Notre Dame. And what did you make of this series as a bounce back for the Gophers, and what were they doing well that wasn’t working the weekend before against Wisconsin?

LANDIS: Yeah, so firstly, like the Wisconsin series, it was very much sort of a reset. And when I asked coach after the Wisconsin series, he was like, I’m going to sit with this for 24 hours. And then I’m going to assess and then they hit practice really hard that week. They were very focused, they’re very driven and they understood where they had made mistakes. They had sort of lacked intensity, and then they came into Notre Dame, they were kind of just doing everything right, they scored right away. And then when they came out against Notre Dame, they were very much aware of where they had been lacking against Wisconsin. Their forwards stepped up in a big way. Captain Sammy Walker in that first game on Friday, he scored a goal first and then he also assisted on Blake McLaughlin’s empty-net goal in the third period, they were, and they were just very aware of where they needed to be on the ice, they scored on the powerplay where they have been having some struggles and overall, they just prevented any chance from Notre Dame. They, when you go in against Notre Dame, they are very well known for being a sort of shut down defensive like one goal game sort of team to play against, which the Gophers have had trouble against in the past, but they came out strong offensively and they were able to prevent any goals from Notre Dame, and they also were able to take advantage of a few miscommunications.

In that first Friday game, there was a sort of very uncharacteristic defensive breakdown from the Fighting Irish, they collided at the face of two Irish players they collided at the faceoff dots and that just allowed Brannon McManus just, you know, a great opportunity to score and then LaFontaine obviously was playing extremely well. After that Wisconsin series that was sort of a rough go for all of the goaltenders. And he was just dialed in. He was very focused. And then he, you know, he did that two nights in a row. And I think two parts of that was after, you know, against Wisconsin, that second Wisconsin game, they lost 8-1, which roughly he was he was very rough, and it was, that’s the most lopsided goal or end score this season. And I think the players were very intent on getting LaFontaine that shutout that third that first night against Notre Dame because they knew like that weekend had been rough for him and all the other goaltenders. I think Sampo Ranta postgame said something to that effect of, you know, when we were in that position to give him that shut out, we were working hard because we wanted to give that to him because he’s been working hard all season. He is always you know, really dedicated and we just want to play well in front of him.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, it was, it was kind of like they beat Notre Dame at their own game, you know, a couple of 3-0 wins. And back-to-back shutouts from La Fontaine, who, who really has been a big part of the team success this year. He has four shutouts the season, including those two. What is kind of made the difference for him this year like he was a solid goaltender last year, but he wasn’t the like, where he’s been this year where he’s probably one of the better goaltenders in college hockey, I guess, where what’s been the difference in his play? Where is he kind of taken that jump from last season?

LANDIS: Yeah, I think you know, you’re right when you say he is arguably one of the best goaltenders in college hockey. He’s nominated, nominated, excuse me, for the Hobey Baker and a Mike Richter, which is like the MVP, and then like the top goaltender award. And he’s just, he is just a very good athlete, he is just very focused, and he is very driven. He just knows what needs to be done in a game. And he like whenever, you know, they have a loss or something like that he always knows like, or he always says to us in media, like we just have to go back to basics, we just have to go back to fundamentals. And his fundamentals are really strong. He is a little older. As a senior, he is a senior, but he is a little older, because he did take some time in junior hockey, and he has just been, I feel like it’s not necessarily a jump. It’s just he’s just stepping up and continuing to build on his skill set. And he’s just very focused like I said, and he knows, you know, he knows his game. And at this point in the season, it’s, he’s playing really well. And you can see that in, he’s never really put in a position where he seems surprised or taken aback. He’s just very focused.

Something I always notice in terms of his preparedness is pregame, he’ll go out in ice and hit, you know… this is a podcast, you can’t see my hands, but he’ll do these little reps of like, he’ll stick out his block or like 1-2-3 and like, track it with his eyes, and then he’ll do it with his glove like 1-2-3, and he does that every single game and it’s, it’s very, you know, goalies not necessarily in pop culture, but in sports culture, they sort of have this reputation of like, oh, goalies are crazy. And it’s some goalies are a little bit, but he’s, you know, he’s not. I would say he’s just he’s very focused and very driven. And that shows up in his game. And he, you know, he’s, he’s very he’s a very elite level goalie. And I think, you know, in college hockey, you can’t always tell because goalies, sometimes they take longer to develop or they take a little longer to get to an NHL level, but he is he’s playing his best hockey right now. And he, this is his last year with the Gophers. He was selected 75th overall from the 2016 NHL draft by the Hurricanes. So he is I guess, it’s not necessarily just one thing that he’s changed. It’s just he has continually improved his game. And I think also the team around him has gotten better, a little bit older. And so that just allows him to can you know, to keep working on his game getting better,

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah, kind of that, like, all-around improvement. And yeah, it was fun watching the Gophers beginning of the year where he started every single game and you know, Motzko just kept saying like, this kid’s a horse, you know, yeah, he’s can just keep going and he never wants to, he never wants to sit out.

LANDIS: Yeah, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

O’HARA: Right. Right. And, you know, obviously, too, you know, a goalie is important, but they can’t do everything and the Gophers, a lot of their best players are the blueliners in front of him. You know, a lot of great defensemen on this team. A lot of young defensemen, too. They’re mostly sophomores and freshmen, I guess, who stood out to you, um, on the blue line for the team and what have they been able to kind of do to make things difficult and make LaFontaine as good as he has been this year?

LANDIS: Yeah, I think someone who stands out right away is Jackson LaCombe. He is steady, he’s a sophomore. He’s been steadily improving from his freshman year. You know, getting more games to play, getting more up to speed with like the college level. He is a really mobile defenseman. Sort of like that Bobby Orr archetype of like he is. He’s always coming up and joining the play and getting involved. And there was this highlight from a couple of games ago. I don’t remember which game it was. But he, he had the puck, and he was just going around. And he is just, he’s very mobile. He’s always joining the play.

There was a highlight from a couple of games ago. I don’t remember specifically which one it was one of their home games, I think, but he had the puck, and he was just circling the opponent’s zone and he just held on to the puck for like a ridiculous amount of time. And it was, you know, really strong stickhandling good skating. And he just held on and waited and waited. And then he saw his opening and he scored this really nice goal and it’s he’s, you know, he’s very exciting to watch that mobile defenseman sort of player is more common now, like as, you know, hockey overall, in college hockey, especially the skating is just improved so much in the last, you know, 10 years, even five years, and he has been really valuable on both ends of the ice. He in 15 games, he has scored three goals and 10 assists for 13 points with you know, that’s almost a point per game clip there. And also, notably, I was just looking, he has a +12 plus minus. So plus-minus is a stat where, you know, if they’re on ice for a goal of their own team or an opponent’s team and he is +12, which is a really big improvement from last year. I think last year, he was something like a +1 or -1. So he is just he’s really involved in the play. Just sort of in generating that offense and that transition from you know, one end of the ice to the other. And then next, I would say to freshmen that have been doing really well. Brock Faber and Mike Koster, or Mike K0ster, sorry, I knew how to pronounce his name.

O’HARA: No, I get that one messed up too. I thought it was Koster for the first couple of times before I knew it was Koster.

LANDIS: Oh, yeah. So I knew how to pronounce it. And then I just mispronounced it. The one time I had to say it out loud. So to Mike, I apologize. But they’ve both been doing really well. Not as prolific in terms of scoring points as LaCombe, but they have both, you know, for freshmen, they’ve been getting really involved they have been seeing a lot of ice time. Faber has played 15 games and Koster has played 19, both of them are sort of in the middle of the team in terms of points. Koster has eight and Faber has five, but I think both of them like they’re both pretty young. I mean, they’re freshmen, but they’re the types of plays they’re doing and like the way they see the ice and sort of understanding the game you can kind of tell they are they’re very skilled and it’s going to be exciting, I think to see them progress and just add you know, add to those resumes and Brock Faber, he was on us a like national team development program, which is like a very elite sort of little club of like high school age players. And so to see one of those players come and play for the Gophers is really exciting because those kids are always very talented.

Koster is very talented as well. And then another one another defenseman, I just want to mention Carl Fish. He is also a freshman. He is a graduate of St. Paul Johnson, which is an inner-city sort of program. I just wanted to point that out because I’m from Minneapolis. So it’s a little bit of bias on my part. But for him to make it to this level, I think is notable. And after playing at Johnson, he went to the NAHL, which is a junior league that is in the United States. It’s sort of like a not like a teardown but it’s not as high up there as the USHL. But I think he’s adjusted really well. He’s played a few games he scored his first goal at home, which I think, you know, it was a nice goal of his. He has a lot of talent and hopefully will be able to get him more involved in the plays. Get him some more ice time. I think he will be a really good a really strong defenseman as well.

O’HARA: Right for sure. And I mean, there’s always some of the Minnesota homerism. You know, there’s going to be lots of fans who are going to be happy to see some St. Paul City grads playing for the Gophers and playing pretty well.

LANDIS: Yeah, he was lucky enough he scored at home and he was able to have some of his family in the stands when it happened and in the postgame. You know, he gave a shout-out to his high school coach. And he feels that as well, you know, to be able to, like, come to the U and represent St. Paul and St. Paul Johnson. It’s, you know, in media, we don’t you know, we can’t I think we kind of romanticize it a little bit, but I think it, it says a lot about the recruiting and also just the strength of programs in Minnesota that we’re able to recruit from.

O’HARA: Absolutely, yeah. And it’s cool to see that he’s able to score in front of some family too, you know, it’s nice that they’ve been able to slowly work their way back to get at least a couple of fans in there, some friends and family of players. A couple of games, saw a couple of fans out a volleyball game the other night, too. So that’s been, that’s been encouraging. And, you know, one of the things I kind of wanted to talk about with this team is they got off to obviously a really hot start, they were No. 1, they pretend to know, they looked unbeatable for a while. And they have come back down to earth a little bit in their last 10 or so games. So they first got swept by Notre Dame, but they’ve since come back and swept Notre Dame. They got swept by Wisconsin and split with Wisconsin, all in this kind of same period. So do you think like, what is the difference between that and now, have they just kind of fall back down to earth? Is there anything Motzko has said, I mean, obviously, being undefeated forever is unsustainable. But is there been any drop-off? Or is it something else that’s kind of happening right now?

LANDIS: Yeah, I think, you know, sort of, like you said, you know, continue just going undefeated the whole season is impossible, but I think this strong start was like a really strong indication of just their chemistry as a group. And it’s like, okay, when, when we’re firing on all cylinders, this is what this team can do. And it was, it was really exciting because you had you know, the defenseman playing well, all the forwards, they, you know, they were scoring, they’re scoring those fancy goals. But then I think one big change from like, this year to last year is like Sampo Ranta last year, he was sort of primarily, like a sniper, but now he’s like, he’s in on the play. And he’s like, you know, muscling his way into the crease to like, and like parking himself there to like, score those gritty goals and score some gritty assists, you actually, I think it was against Notre Dame, he had this ridiculous assist, he was facing backward and had his stick, like, between his legs and pass it to someone behind him. And it’s just crazy. And they…

O’HARA: That was a real pretty play.

LANDIS: Yeah, it was insane. And I think, like, you know, you, you don’t go into a season, like looking at the schedule, like, oh, we’re going to sweep everybody that’s, you know, like, no problem, because especially in a league as big as the Big Ten. Like, that just doesn’t happen. I think what has changed is that part of it was, you know, obviously, that, you know, being No. 1 and being undefeated, that sort of put a little bit of a target on their backs. And, you know, people were ready to come out and take that. And then I think the strongest indication of their improvement is that they bounce back from that really quickly. And I think that shows their maturity as a group and how they’ve responded a lot better as compared to last year where maybe they would lose one and then they’d kind of go on like a four or five skid. And yeah, I think, you know, part again, part of it is, they have kind of come back down to earth a little bit when they first got swept by Notre Dame, Motzko described it as, you know, they got poked in the nose that weekend, because, you know, when you’re up on that level, and just like, winning constantly, you know, you can only do that for so long.

And also, over time, people are going to, you know, they’re going to get film of your power play, of your penalty killing, especially those special teams, that was something they were doing really well in the beginning, and then people kind of figured that out. They kind of, you know, cracked the code on that a little bit. And also that first sweep by Notre Dame, the most notable thing was, Notre Dame came in and they were physical, they were hitting, they were, you know, kind of roughing them up in the corners and they had not really faced that in the beginning. And I think that was sort of a wake-up call for them because, like, you know, they’re, they’re not invincible. And so when, you know, when that happened, then they sort of struggled to respond to it, and they sort of realized like, okay, we have to, you know, we have to do some work here and they have responded really well. They, you know, they lose to Wisconsin and or split that series and then they go and they sweep Arizona, they scored 20 goals on Arizona State like they, you know, they know when they mess up and they sort of are able to recalibrate better than I saw last year.

O’HARA: Right. And I think Motzko’s approach to it has been helping with that. I know, after the Notre Dame series, he was talking about the one-on-one and two-on-two drills he had them doing all practice the following Monday, so I’m going to take a guess in that, that that helped them wake up a little bit after those losses. And, you know, looking towards this weekend, the Gophers have another matchup coming up against Michigan State. They swept them earlier in the year, which was a little while ago, but what stood out to you about the Spartans then, and who do you think the Gophers need to watch out for in this matchup?

LANDIS: Right. So you know, that was, that was quite a while ago in terms of, I mean, it was in December, early December when they swept Michigan State, but just looking back something they did, really well, they, their power play was clicking pretty well, they scored two power-play goals in that first game, and then one in a second. And notably, they were able to draw quite a lot of penalties on Michigan State in that first game, I think they had something like seven. Yes, seven power-play opportunities, which is, you know, a lot, and they — it’s been a while, so I don’t really have a good the best frame of reference for like comparison, because both teams have played quite a lot of games since then. But just for comparison. Their top scorer is Mitch Lewandowski, he has scored 10 points in 17 games. And Minnesota’s leading scorer or not leading scorer but most points go to Ben Meyers. He is leading the team with 20 points in 16 games. So there’s, you know, there’s quite a bit of difference there. And then these comparing goalies there, Drew Deridder, who is their starting goalie he has 2.51 goals-against average and LaFontaine, even with that sort of lopsided Wisconsin game, he has a 1.14. So they so Minnesota has a pretty good chance here to continue winning and play well against Michigan State. Michigan State’s last series, they did split with Arizona State, which would be something to watch out for. But they have a pretty solid chance of being able to continue if they got to put it frankly, if they got swept by Michigan State, I would be very surprised.

O’HARA: I’d be pretty surprised myself if they got swept by Michigan State. I don’t really see that one happening. But is there anything you do expect to see or any predictions that you have about the game?

LANDIS: Yeah, I would say it’s very within the realm of possibility that we see a goal from Blake McLaughlin. He had he’s been playing really well offensively as of late and he had this streak going at Notre Dame like he scored every time they went to Notre Dame, which unfortunately got snapped on Saturday after a very lengthy offside review. Which was unfortunate because it wasn’t caught on the original play. But he has been doing well and I would expect maybe he, you know, maybe he’s looking to add one after getting that one taken back. And then I also wouldn’t be too surprised if they put Jared Moe in goal for one of these games for LaFontaine. Obviously, he’s been working very hard, back-to-back shutouts is kind of you know — you can’t really do much more than that from your goalie. So if they gave him one night of rest, I wouldn’t be too surprised. But also, we have seen them continue to let him play when he’s been playing well. So that remains to be seen. They may have already made a decision on goaltenders, but generally, we don’t know until the night of the game, so that will be something to watch out for sure.

O’HARA: Yeah, I definitely would be surprised if he wasn’t starting in the net Friday anyways, coming off those back-to-back shutouts. You have some thoughts he said you don’t think Michigan State is going to come away with the sweep but guess thoughts, score predictions for Friday and Saturday?

LANDIS: See, I’m not good at score predictions. We did Super Bowl score predictions, and I did not do too hot, but I think…

O’HARA: It’s no worries. I think a couple of weeks ago, AJ was like 0-3 on his predictions and then the following week, he got it back. So there’s always a chance for redemption.

LANDIS: Okay, I would say maybe last time they played it was like a 3-1, 4-2 situation. So maybe it was a maybe like a 3-2 maybe a 5-2, 5-1 type of situation like I would expect them to continue to be pretty sharp defensively, but Michigan State I wouldn’t count them out for scoring a few goals and then hopefully their Minnesota forwards continue to produce in a way that they have when they’ve been needed to so.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah. So one, one tight one and one kind of Gophers pull away and come up with a sweep either way.

LANDIS: Sure.

O’HARA: All right. All right. Well, we can catch that happen this Friday and Saturday at Mariucci. Well, Anna, thank you so much for joining. It’s been great to have you here and talk about some hockey be back in the office for a little bit. And hope you enjoy watching the games this Saturday and look forward to all the coverage.

LANDIS: Yeah, thank you for having me. It was good to get back on the pod.

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O’HARA: In other news: We have some breaking news actually coming about coming out from the Gophers men’s hockey team. Their series against Penn State on Feb. 27-28 has been canceled amid concerns about the health and safety protocols in the Nittany Lions program. The Gophers will still be playing this weekend, however, against Michigan State.

The Gophers women’s basketball team is coming off a difficult loss on Wednesday to Rutgers where Minnesota fell 83-56. But it wasn’t all bad news for Minnesota as Gadiva Hubbard returned to the lineup after sitting out multiple games to injury. 7-10 Minnesota will return to action on Saturday for a difficult matchup against Maryland, the Big Ten’s best.

The Gophers women’s hockey team is also coming off a difficult weekend in which they got swept by Ohio State, falling 2-1 Friday and 3-2 Saturday. They will return to action this Friday and Saturday for their season-closing series against Bemidji State.

The Gophers men’s basketball team lost its matchup to Indiana on Wednesday at 82-72. Marcus Carr scored 19 and so did Jamal Mashburn Jr., but the two guards’ games were not enough to come out with a win. The Gophers are still yet to win a game on the road to season. They return to action on Saturday with the matchup against Illinois at the Barn.

The Gophers baseball team is officially back in action this spring with their first game coming on March 5 against Indiana. It’s been a long hiatus for the group since the season was canceled amid the pandemic last spring.

That’s all for this week. Be sure to check our website mndaily.com for more extensive coverage and tune in again next week to get the “Weekly Rundown” on all things Gopher sports. Thanks.