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Published July 21, 2024

Gophers goalie Justen Close and his impact as team’s defensive anchor

Close’s goaltending coach, teammate and head coach gave high praises for his performance and his value on the ice.
Image by Daye Stager
Gophers goalie Justen Close takes his place by the goal at the start of the Big Ten game against Wisconsin. The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers beat the No. 1 Minnesota Gophers 5-2 on Thursday, Oct. 26.

Goaltenders are the backbone of a hockey team and a large part of a team’s performance is dependent on how they play.

Justen Close, a graduate goalie for the Gophers, is no stranger to putting up stellar performances to shut the opponent down. Earlier this season, Close recorded two consecutive shutouts against St. Thomas and North Dakota.

Two years earlier however, Close had not yet earned his position as the starting goalie.

Brennan Poderzay, an assistant and goaltending coach for the Gophers, was in his first year with the team when Close took the starting role. He said there was no thought of Close playing a game while former starting goalie Jack LaFontaine was on the team.

Initially the backup goaltender for the first two seasons of his collegiate career, Close claimed the starting position for the 2021-22 season. Midway through the season, then-fifth-year LaFontaine signed a professional contract and moved on from the Gophers.

On Jan. 14, 2022, Close started his first game in goal for the Gophers and won, making 14 saves in the process. Ever since, Close has been the starting goalie for Minnesota.

The Gophers are coming off a three-game losing streak heading into their Friday night matchup against University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Head Coach Bob Motzko said the Gophers’ losing skid has not rattled Close.

“He never changes,” Motzko said. “I don’t even know if he thinks he lost.”

According to Poderzay, Close’s maturity helps him decipher the difference between a good win and a bad loss. Poderzay said a large part of Close’s progress through the years is that he has become a leader for the team.

“He’s taken the role of being a captain without wearing a letter,” Poderzay said. “When he speaks, everybody listens.”

Playing his game

Poderzay compared Close’s goaltending to that of NHL goalie Alex Stalock. Poderzay said Stalock, who was formerly a player for Minnesota-Duluth in the late 2000s, is similar to Close because of their puck-handling skills.

Close, however, does not have a distinct goaltending style, according to Poderzay.

“There’s not a one size fits all goaltending structure in Justen’s game,” he said. “He’s extremely intelligent and he’s athletic.”

Close, compared to other goalies, is relatively smaller in stature, standing at 5-foot-10-inches tall. Poderzay said there used to be a stigma around “shorter” goalies; they used to have to be upward of 6-foot-3-inches to have successful professional careers.

Now, Poderzay said this stigma has been somewhat erased and there is more appreciation for the fundamentals of being able to stop the puck. He added smaller goalies have an insatiable desire to be students of the game.

“They’re more often than not extremely athletic,” Poderzay said. “If you can have a brain behind that athleticism, it makes stopping the puck a whole lot easier, no matter what size you are.”

Close’s athletic capability allows him to make timely saves like his incredible post-to-post save early on in the Gophers game versus Wisconsin last Friday.

These timely saves can help the team hold onto a tight lead late in the game. Although the Gophers lost the game to the Badgers, saves from Close kept his team within one goal for most of the game.

Jaxon Nelson, a graduate forward for the Gophers, said none of the three recent losses were Close’s fault.

“He always gives us the best shot to win,” Nelson said.

As an individual off of the ice

Poderzay said Close is a wise and mature individual. Despite being older than Close, Poderzay said there were times when he felt immature when talking to Close.

“You feel like you’re talking to your grandfather as opposed to a 25-year-old,” Poderzay said.

Nelson said Close always owns up to his mistakes and never blames anyone for anything.

There is one geographical difference between Close and his teammates. Close, a native of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, Canada, is one of two members of the Gophers not from Minnesota.

“I guess I’m used to it by now,” Close said jokingly about being one of two non-Minnesotans.

Poderzay said his time as a player and coach has allowed him to meet some other individuals from Saskatchewan.

“The guys from Saskatchewan hold a special place in your heart,” Poderzay said. “They’re the guys that you always enjoy catching up with.”

Close’s goalie partner, Nathan Airey, is from Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, making him the only other Gopher from Canada.

“It is good to have another Canadian around the locker room, for sure,” Close said.

Poderzay said Airey was recently cleared from injury to return for a full week of practice.

“I think there will be a lot of stories about [Airey] in the future,” Poderzay said. “I think that he has all the makings to be an incredibly special goaltender at this level.”

Airey is yet to debut in a game for the Gophers this season. Sophomore goaltender Zach Wiese played in the Gophers exhibition win versus Bemidji State but has not played in a regular season game.

Close is expected to continue his graduate campaign on Friday night when Minnesota hosts Minnesota-Duluth at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

Correction: The initial version spelled Close’s name wrong. It is spelled Justen Close.

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