Shorthanded Gophers men’s hockey closes out non-conference schedule against Alaska this weekend

With COVID-19, injuries and their starting goaltender signing a contract to the NHL, many opportunities will arise for some Gophers players.

Goaltender Jack LaFontaine composes himself during the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday, Nov. 22. The Gophers won 4-1.

Sydni Rose

Goaltender Jack LaFontaine composes himself during the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday, Nov. 22. The Gophers won 4-1.

by Michael Lyne

This past week was the craziest of Minnesota’s season. Now, they are preparing to take on Alaska when they host the Nanooks (5-14-1) this weekend for their last non-conference matchup of the season.

After helping the No. 8 Gophers to a series sweep against Michigan State, former starting goaltender Jack LaFontaine signed an entry-level contract with the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 9. The NHL organization needed more goalies as they are suffering from injuries and COVID-19.

LaFontaine’s exit to the NHL comes as a massive loss for Minnesota at an unfortunate time.

“Jack did a lot of great things for us here,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “He was a great student, a heck of a goalie, leaves here All-American. Are we happy? No.”

The Mississauga, Ont. native was the Mike Richter Award winner last season and Big Ten Goaltender of the Year after holding a 22-7 record with a .934 save percentage, 1.79 goals-against average, and five shutouts.

“You deal with it like an injury,” Motzko said about LaFontaine’s exit. “It can happen in sports at any moment that someone goes down. You have to adapt and move on. That’s what we have to do right now. We play Alaska, then Michigan. They don’t care if a guy gets injured and goes down. They want to beat you. This is sports. So we got to move on.”

The focus isn’t changing for the Gophers. Minnesota is sitting atop the Big Ten standings with 25 points and will look to continue its undefeated start to the new year.

Outside of LaFontaine’s exit, other players will miss ice time as the Gophers suffer from COVID-19 and two injuries.

On Wednesday, four players and one staff member had the virus, Motzko said.

“But the craziest thing I told our team … the only thing I’m still scared about is COVID,” Motzko said. “The only thing that is going to derail us is COVID…we’re getting hit. That’s the times we’re in right now.”

Junior Jaxon Nelson and freshman Rhett Pitlick were injured when playing against Michigan State this past weekend.

Nelson’s surgery got delayed, so he is not expected to return to the Gophers’ lineup for four or five weeks. Pitlick’s injury sidelined him for two to three weeks.

Over the remaining schedule for the second half of the season, opponents will test the Gophers’ depth every weekend.

But with LaFontaine leaving the team and players exiting the lineup, there will be opportunities for others that have not played in many games to make an impact for Minnesota.

The most significant opportunity comes at the goaltending position in between the pipes. The Gophers will look to junior Justen Close and freshman Brennan Boynton to fill LaFontaine’s role.

Close played in two games for Minnesota against Wisconsin and Michigan State this season, totaling just 28:20 of ice time. In this span, he recorded 20 saves and conceded one goal.

Luckily for the Gophers, Close recently was the starting goalie in two exhibition games on Jan. 2 and 3, where he totaled 38 saves on 43 shots faced. The plan was to get him some game action as they expected LaFontaine to play for the remainder of the season.

“His teammates absolutely love him,” junior co-captain Ben Meyers said. “He’s a great goalie, and we can’t wait to see how he does.”

As for Boynton, he has yet to see any collegiate ice time.

Motzko noted the team is searching to add another goaltender to their roster. The team will have until Tuesday to do so as the University of Minnesota’s spring semester begins on Jan. 18.

Outside of the goaltending position, juniors Jonny Sorenson, Colin Schmidt and sophomore Carl Fish will have opportunities to enter the Gophers’ lineup and impact Minnesota in the second half of the Big Ten season.

“We need every single guy. So, it’s exciting to see what guys will bring to the table,” senior co-captain Sammy Walker said.

The Gophers (12-8) host Alaska on Friday, Jan. 14, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m. at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

Magnificent Meyers

On Tuesday, the Big Ten Conference named Meyers the Big Ten First Star of the Week after he recorded five points (four goals, one assist) in Minnesota’s sweep over Michigan State. He leads the Gophers with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 20 games this season.

Watch out for Walker

The Edina, Minn. player needs one more point to reach 100 collegiate points (42 goals, 57 assists in 125 games) and become the 85th member of the program’s 100-point club.