Gophers men’s hockey faces formidable region in Fargo this weekend

The top-seeded Gophers play Canisius on Thursday at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN2.


Image by Photo courtesy of Gopher Athletics

Logan Cooley during the Gophers’ game against the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday, March 18 in the Big Ten Tournament Championship.

by Matthew Kennedy

When a team gets placed as the top overall seed in an NCAA athletic tournament, it may be convenient to presume they would have the easiest road to a championship. In the case of the top-ranked Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team, that is unfortunately not the case, as their region involves two hungry arch-rivals motivated to topple the top Minnesota squad.

To garner as much attendance as they can, the NCAA sets up each region based on geography. Thus, western Minnesota gets the toughest of the two-seeds in the bracket: Gophers’ head coach Bob Motzko’s former team in St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato, who has booted Motzko & Co. from this tournament the last two years.

“This is what you play for,” said an eager Motzko on Wednesday. “We’re excited to get on the road, we’ve been home for a month.”

Before the Gophers have to worry about the NCHC tournament champion Huskies or CCHA tournament champion Mavericks, they will play the Atlantic Hockey tournament champions, the Canisius Griffins, on Thursday night.

Sitting at a record just above .500 (20-18-3), Canisius was a surprise team to come out of the middling Atlantic Hockey Conference, which usually only sends its tournament champion to the NCAA tournament as the lowest seed.

The maestros of the Griffins’ success this year are senior forward Keaton Mastrodonato (36 points: 16 goals, 20 assists), who is a two-time Hobey Baker nominee (2020-21, 2021-22), and senior forward Ryan Miotto (35 points: 17 goals, 18 assists). Senior netminder Jacob Barczewski is on a hot streak, allowing two goals or fewer in his last eight games. The Griffins shut out three of their opponents and finished 6-2 in that timeframe.

The last No. 1 overall seed to fall in the first round was St. Cloud State in 2019 to Atlantic Hockey Conference member American International by a score of 2-1 at Fargo’s Scheels Arena, where the Gophers and Griffins will compete.

Minnesota has a similar scratch on their tournament history, being the first ever top-seed to fall in the first round with the bracket expanded to 16 teams. In 2006, Holy Cross (another Atlantic Hockey Conference member), upset Phil “The Thrill” Kessel in his last game in a maroon & gold uniform. The Crusaders won 3-2 in overtime at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

“We just stick to the same game,” Gophers senior forward Jaxon Nelson said when asked if their approach as players changes in the postseason. “We like to get pucks deep and drive the puck low, be able to get back on the backcheck and prevent teams from scoring on the rush.”

Looking ahead to Saturday’s tilt, if the Gophers win they will play against two teams against whom they are 1-1. Minnesota split a home-and-home series with Mankato in October and split a home-and-home series with St. Cloud in January.

In both wins over those teams, freshmen forward top-liners Jimmy Snuggerud and Logan Cooley stepped up. Snuggerud secured a hat trick against Mankato and Cooley netted a 3-on-3 overtime game-winning goal with 18.8 seconds remaining.

“We’re the most hated team here,” Motzko said. “Any of the green [North Dakota] fans show up, you know who they’re against. There’s two other Minnesota teams … We got a target on us, so we are the underdog.”

Here is the skinny on both teams playing in the other regional first round matchup at 4 p.m. Central Standard Time on ESPNU:

Minnesota State-Mankato: The Mavericks are tied for second in the nation for only allowing 2 goals per game and are first in the country on successful power plays, 27.9% of the time. The main producer in that powerplay unit is junior forward David Silye, who leads the team with 12 and has scored 23 total goals this season.

Mankato is also very successful on the faceoff, the top in the nation in faceoff win percentage (60%). The reason for their low seeding is due to true head-scratching losses against smaller schools like Ferris State (twice), Bemidji State (twice) and St. Thomas. Averaging a goal per game on special teams can make any team ripe to win a tough region.

St. Cloud State: In both games against the Gophers, the Huskies played stellar defense and featured excellent goaltending from senior Jaxon Castor. The only game this season where Minnesota’s vaunted offense was shut out was at Herb Brooks National Hockey Center on Jan. 7 when St. Cloud came out victorious 3-0.

The Huskies are the most pesky team the Gophers have played, forcing top skating speeds on the full sheet of ice, making it hard to earn good scoring opportunities. They also have lethal scoring forwards led by senior Jami Krannila, with 21 goals to his name.

This season the Huskies were hampered with many key injuries, including senior defenseman Dylan Anhorn done for the year and team captain graduate student defenseman Spencer Meier, with a season-long upper-body issue. When fully healthy, this team would have been a likely one-seed over the Denver Pioneers.