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Sizing up three Gophers men’s hockey opponents

Student reporters from Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State speak on their respective teams’ outlooks for the Big Ten season.
Image by Ethan Fine
Members of the Minnesota men’s hockey team give a stick salute to the fans at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn. after completing a sweep of the Wisconsin Badgers with an 8-0 win on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

The University of Minnesota men’s hockey will begin their 11th season of Big Ten play on Thursday night when they face their cross-border rivals, the Wisconsin Badgers.

The Gophers will then continue to face highly competitive in-conference opponents, such as the Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes, as they look to claim their third consecutive Big Ten regular season title.

On the most recent United States College Hockey Online (USCHO) ranking, six out of seven Big Ten teams are ranked. Minnesota topped the chart for the second week in a row at No. 1 heading into their home series against Wisconsin.

A familiar but reconstructed foe

Minnesota’s opening schedule consists of two consecutive rivalry series: an away trip to North Dakota, which was split 1-1, and a home stand against No. 14 Wisconsin.

The Badgers struggled last season, posting a 6-18-0 record within the conference, their fifth losing season in the past seven seasons. In response, Wisconsin parted ways with head coach Tony Granato.

In place of Granato, the Badgers brought in Mike Hastings, the former head coach of Minnesota State University, Mankato. Hastings came to Wisconsin with just under 300 career wins and numerous NCAA tournament appearances.

Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said Hastings has brought his hallmark traits to the Badgers. Familiar aspects of Hastings-coached teams include aggressive forechecks, discipline and a hard-nosed style of play.

Before becoming the Gophers’ head coach, Motzko served as the head coach of St. Cloud State for 13 seasons. Motzko compared his transition from St. Cloud State to Minnesota to Hastings’s transition from Mankato to Wisconsin.

“I think when I came [to Minnesota], we were trying to play the same way we played in St. Cloud and a lot of the nuances are the same,” Motzko said. “We’re seeing the same nuances [in Wisconsin] that we would see in Mankato.”

Anthony Winker, a Badgers beat reporter for the Badger Herald, said the Mankato transfers are going to be the players to look out for this season. The Badgers brought in transfers David Silye, Simon Tassy and Christian Fitzgerald from Mankato. Silye was named Forward of the Year of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association last season after producing 23 goals and a total of 39 points.

The Badgers also returned last season’s leading point scorers Cruz Lucius and Mathieu De St. Phalle. This season, Lucius has three goals and De St. Phalle leads the team with seven points.

Winker said the Badgers will be an “offensive-first” team and added the defense and goaltending could be an issue this year for the Badgers.

“There are so many pieces that are unproven,” Winker said.

The Badgers had a goal differential of minus 32 and a combined goaltender save percentage of .894 last season. Jared Moe was the starting goaltender in the majority of games for the Badgers last season, while Kyle McClellan served more of a backup role.

This season, Wisconsin has turned to McClellan as their starter. So far, McClellan has been able to provide two shutouts and five wins for the Badgers.

“McClellan has the talent, he can be a very good goaltender for Wisconsin,” Winker said. Winker had one question about McClellan, though: “Can he put it all together?”

A recent struggle for the Gophers

As for No. 6 Michigan, the team has been a force in both the Big Ten and the entirety of the NCAA.

In the past two seasons, Michigan defeated the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament championship twice, both games ending with a score of 4-3.

The Wolverines are in a similar situation to the Gophers as they have lost key starters. Big names including Luke Hughes, Adam Fantilli and Erik Portillo went on to play professionally.

Ellie Richard, a men’s hockey reporter at the Michigan Daily, said the returning sophomore class for the Wolverines is still filled with high-end talent. Returners like Rutger McGroarty and Gavin Brindley headline the offensive group, according to Richard.

On the defensive side, Richard said sophomore Seamus Casey and senior captain Jacob Truscott have been notable for Michigan so far.

“Even though the departure of stars has left some holes in the lineup, I think the team has done a good job of trying to rework that by having other players step up and have bigger seasons,” Richard said.

Anna Miller, also a men’s hockey reporter at the Michigan Daily, said head coach Brandon Naurato did a good job in recruiting from the transfer portal.

Sophomore transfer Tyler Duke, a sophomore who transferred from Ohio State, was a significant pick-up for the Wolverines, according to Miller. Additionally, Miller said graduate transfer Marshall Warren from Boston College has brought leadership to the team while graduate transfer and goaltender Jake Barczewski has shown confidence, bringing plenty of value to the team.

So far this season, Michigan holds a 3-2-1 record, splitting all three series they have played in.

Michigan has faced three teams that are now listed on the USCHO rankings: No. 7 Providence, No. 19 Massachusetts and No. 16 Ohio State. The Wolverines face the No. 1 Gophers on Nov. 10 and 11.

Richard said the team’s issue thus far has been playing the full 60-minutes per game.

“I think that has contributed to the fact that the team hasn’t been able to complete a series sweep up to this point,” Richard said.

A team building on last year’s success

Contrary to their playoff performance last season, Ohio State were ranked last on the Big Ten preseason poll.

Last season, Ohio State finished third in the Big Ten with an 11-11-2 in-conference record. The Buckeyes defeated Harvard 8-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season but lost a close contest to Quinnipiac in the semifinals.

Ohio State has started this season 2-1-2, most recently splitting a series at Michigan. The Buckeyes dropped their first game 7-1 but won the second game in a shootout.

Conor Finn, a men’s hockey reporter for The Lantern, said fifth-year defender Scooter Brickey and senior forward Patrick Guzzo are the two players to look out for on the Buckeyes.

Ohio State will also return their top point producer, sophomore Stephen Halliday. Halliday put up 41 points in 40 games last season and has four points in five games played this season.

Ohio State suffered a big loss on the backend with the departure of goaltender Jakub Dobeš. Since then, Finn said there has been competition for the starting position between three goaltenders on the team: Logan Terness, Reilly Herbst and Kristoffer Eberly.

Terness has started all five games for the Buckeyes this season, recording two wins and an .897 save percentage.

Finn referenced last year’s 4-1 loss in the NCAA tournament to Quinnipiac as another concern for this season.

“A lot of times, Ohio State can take their foot off of the gas pedal,” Finn said. “Then, all of a sudden, it’s 4-1.”

The Buckeyes held an early 1-0 lead over the Bobcats at the start of the quarterfinal game. Quinnipiac scored four unanswered goals, two in the first period, two in the third and eventually won the game.

Minnesota will face Ohio State in their last matchup before the holiday break in December. The Gophers will travel to Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 8 and 9, the weekend following the Buckeyes return from an away series against the Badgers.

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