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First impressions: new men’s hockey talent shines in exhibition win

The Gophers’ new faces shined as they took down Bemidji State 5-2.
Image by Eitan Schoenberg
The Gophers mens hockey team lines up during their game on Oct. 8, 2023.

Gophers fans got a glimpse of men’s hockey’s new faces in their Sunday night win over Bemidji State at 3M Arena at Mariucci. 

Minnesota took to the recently renovated ice at 3M Arena at Mariucci with some new jerseys and faces. First-years Sam Rinzel, Oliver Moore, Max Rud, Jimmy Clark and Axel Begley made their debuts in the maroon and gold in the exhibition game.

Though the game does not count toward the Gophers’ record, it provided an opportunity to get a sense of the new team.

Freshmen show off talent

Just two freshmen appeared in the Gophers forward group on Sunday night: Moore and Clark. 

Moore received a lot of attention from the student section, even before the puck dropped. A roar came from the student section when Moore’s name was called in the pregame lineups. 

He generated scoring opportunities while the Gophers’ offensive efforts were being rubbed out by Bemidji State’s defense early on. Moore put up the opening and closing goals against the Beavers.

Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said Clark played a “really good” game in the post-game press conference. Though Clark recorded no points, he won nine of 11 faceoffs and showed hustle in his efforts.

On the back end, Sam Rinzel’s offensive game stood out. He recorded three shots on goal and was inches away from scoring during the third period.

Rinzel, using his 6-foot-4 frame to protect the puck, jumped into plays in the offensive zone and generated a few scoring chances for the Gophers.

Offensive depth from the returners

Minnesota’s sophomore-dominated lineup saw players filling new roles in the exhibition game. 

Sophomore Garrett Pinoniemi started the game on a line with graduates Jaxon Nelson and Bryce Brodzinski. Pinoniemi shuffled through the lineup in the second period but moved back to his original line in the third period.

Brodzinski scored from below the goal line for the Gophers’ third goal of the game.

Pinoniemi showed solid hustle on both sides of the puck and helped set up Brodzinski’s goal. Motzko said Pinoniemi has shown great improvement from last year. 

Ryan Chesley and Luke Mittelstadt had some great plays as a defensive pairing. The two were active in the offensive zone as well, holding pucks in at the blue line.

Sophomores Connor Kurth and Brody Lamb provided significant offense on a line together with junior Rhett Pitlick. Lamb stepped in to play center in the exhibition game and won 11 of 18 faceoffs.

“I don’t know the last time [Lamb] played center, but he did a great job on the dot and in the ‘D’ zone,” Kurth said.

Pitlick tallied two goals in the contest and Kurth had the primary assist on both of them. Pitlick and Kurth received first and second stars of the game, respectively.

Graduate goaltender Justen Close kept Bemidji State off the board in the first period, making some key saves in the process. Close’s ability to recover to make consecutive saves will play a major role early on in the season as the Gophers shuffle through defensive pairings.

Sophomore Zach Wiese came in during the second period to replace Close. Motzko said Wiese played great and was happy to have him in goal.

On a line with Moore, sophomore Jimmy Snuggerud and senior Mason Nevers put up most of the Gophers’ offense at the beginning of the game. The three were able to generate line rushes consistently.

Nevers left the game in the third period after taking a hit to the head. Motzko was unhappy with the hit, which resulted in a major penalty and ejection for Bemidji forward Liam Engström. 

“That was a dirty hit and we’ll lose [Nevers] now for a little bit,” Motzko said.

Nevers had an assist on Moore’s first goal of the game.

To be improved

The Gophers started the game on their heels as they were peppered with offense from Bemidji. Close made an incredible save on a two-on-one rush in the opening minute of the game.

The Gophers had some difficulty moving the puck through the defensive and neutral zone. Kurth thought the defensive zone was the hardest thing for the new team to implement.

“It’s just a different speed,” Kurth said. “You got to adjust early.”

Minnesota’s defense improved throughout the game and the team began to dominate in waves in the second and third periods.

A defensive breakdown on a power play in the third period, however, led to a shorthanded goal for Bemidji.

Kurth, who played significant time on the power play in the game, said the power play is different without players like Jackson LaCombe, Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley. 

“I think we’ll establish some chemistry and find our own rhythm,” Kurth said.

Similarly, Pitlick said there is room for improvements to be made.

“I think we’re finding our way,” Pitlick said. “We’ve still got some space to improve, but I thought we did well.”

The Gophers play their first regular season game on Friday night against St. Thomas at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

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