Gophers men’s hockey set for border battle against Wisconsin

Last time the Gophers played the Badgers, they defeated them 6-4 in the Big Ten Championship.

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Ethan Fine

Defenseman Ryan Johnson skates away from his opponent with the puck during the Gophers’ matchup against Notre Dame, Friday, Oct. 29. The Gophers won, 4-1.

by Michael Lyne

The No. 5 Gophers men’s hockey team will drop the puck against Wisconsin for the first time this season Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday evening (8 p.m) in search of their second-consecutive series sweep.
“It’s fun and exciting to play the Badgers,” Gophers senior defenseman Ben Brinkman said. “To us, it’s just another week. We prepare the same way as if we are playing anyone. Obviously, we are going to be a little more excited, but we still got to stay even-keel and do the same things we want to do every week.”

After Minnesota Duluth swept them two series ago, the Gophers got back to their winning ways against Notre Dame last weekend to earn their second series sweep of the season.

Graduate student goaltender Jack LaFontaine played a significant role in the sweep, saving 54 of the 57 shots he faced throughout the series. After a slow start to the season, he is starting to get back to his stellar form of last season.

“He was kind of victimized early, and we got dented a little bit giving up some goals early in the year, but it didn’t even dent him,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “He dug even deeper like, ‘Ok, I need to take care of this.’ It shows his leadership, putting the team on his back. On Saturday night, he was our best player.”

Throughout the season’s early stages, the Gophers’ first periods have not been as good as they have hoped. Of their 28 goals scored, only six have come in the first period.

“This [past] weekend, we scored the first goal both nights,” Motzko said. “Maybe that’s a sign of something where we are going. We just have to be on top of our game [and do] what we want to do…we just have to get off to a good start.”

The Gophers’ first border battle against Wisconsin marks their first away series this season. Motzko said he also believes it will help his team take another step forward as they embrace the rivalry.

“We are excited for a road trip,” Motzko said. “I think it’s going to bring a new level out of us… the blood gets going, coaches don’t need to say much. They know, these guys get it.”

Early on this season, the Gophers had the injury bug. Forwards in senior Grant Cruikshank and freshman Chaz Lucius and sophomore defenseman Mike Koster have been out of the lineup with injuries recently. However, Motzko likes the depth his team has this year.

Junior forward Jonny Sorenson was an extra skater or out of the lineup throughout the first six games. However, he got his chance to play in the Gophers’ top four lines due to the injuries to Cruikshank and Lucius, making the most of his opportunity as he scored his first goal of the season against Notre Dame Saturday night.

In the absence of Koster, sophomore defenseman Carl Fish saw playing time in the Gophers’ back end as he played in his first four games this season.

Motzko hopes Koster will return to the lineup this weekend because of the boost he brings to the Gophers’ back end.

“[He helps us on the] power play for sure,” Motzko said. “He’s also elevated himself into an elite defenseman. [It] gives us another puck mover. I think he gives us another weapon out there…we are pretty sure he’s back. We are still testing it out a little bit, but he’s passed all the tests right now and looks good.”

Last time out against the Badgers, the Gophers defeated them 6-4 in the Big Ten Championship. They will look to continue to build on that win this weekend in their second Big Ten series this season.

“I would say these are probably one of my favorite weekends,” Gophers senior forward Sammy Walker said. “I love playing these guys. Just every weekend, it’s a fun matchup, so I’m looking forward to it.”