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Gophers battle Spartans, and COVID fatigue, as they visit Michigan State

For the third consecutive college hockey season, COVID is a part of life to one extent or another. And for the Minnesota Gophers, as the second half of their 2021-22 season begins, it is a constantly changing target as they work to stay on the ice in advance of a series at Michigan State.

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A first-period power play goal by defenseman Dennis Cesana (22) gave Michigan State a 1-0 lead that held up until late in the third period of their Big Ten tournament quarterfinal versus the Minnesota Gophers on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at Compton Family Ice Arena on the Notre Dame campus.
Contributed / Big Ten Conference / Mike Miller

MINNEAPOLIS – A few minutes before they were dismissed from a practice at Ridder Arena this week, members of the Minnesota Gophers were called over to one of the benches and told to gather around the team’s athletic trainer, Jeff Winslow. When Winslow began to speak, a round of playful boos broke out among the Gophers players.

Winslow is one of the more respected and best-liked members of the team staff, so the boos were not aimed at him, but more at the message he was delivering – the latest update on rules related to COVID handed down by the school and the conference.

“They just changed. If you heard us all gather over there, we’ve got new changes coming, and that’s what we live with now,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, meeting with the media an hour or so after the Ohio State at Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth at St. Cloud State series had been postponed due to positive COVID tests elsewhere. The Gophers coach said his team has been resilient and has dealt with the constantly evolving testing requirements and the like, as the pandemic evolves seemingly every day.

“The truth of the matter is our guys are just like, ‘OK, what now’ and they change,” Motzko said. “This is our third hockey season (affected by the pandemic), but more important than a hockey season, look what it’s done to our whole society. Guys just want to play hockey and we want to stay safe, and you hear so many different things.”

They play at Michigan State this weekend and will see the impact at Munn Ice Arena. The school is requiring that any and all spectators show either proof that you are vaccinated and boosted, or a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of game time to enter the rink. And masks are required inside Munn for everyone not wearing skates.

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Among the Gophers players, avoidance of the virus has changed from 22 months ago when some thought COVID would be a death sentence for anyone, no matter their age or physical condition. Today, widespread vaccination and a new strain means that the symptoms can be less severe. Despite the playful boos directed at Winslow, there’s a resignation that whatever is required to keep playing, that is what they will do.

“The first year we were kind of all afraid to get it, because we didn’t know what it was, but as time goes on, guys are pretty much just afraid of it because they’d have to sit out,” said junior forward Bryce Brodzinski. “No one is really afraid of it because we’re in good enough shape that it doesn’t really affect us much. At this point it’s just having to take time away from hockey if you get it.”

No easy sailing versus Spartans

In a conference with just seven teams like Big Ten hockey, there is not a dramatic on-ice difference between first place and the cellar. That was certainly the case last season, in which the Gophers – who finished second in the conference’s regular season – went 5-0-0 versus Michigan State, but never had an “easy” game versus the seventh-place team.

The Spartans are currently 11-8-1 overall, and 5-5-0 in conference play, putting them smack dab in the middle of the fight for home ice in the playoffs. Perhaps more importantly, they are 18th in the most recent PairWise rankings, meaning that a strong second half could mean Sparty’s first trip to the NCAA playoffs in a decade.

For opponents, the biggest challenge the Spartans present is in goal, where the tandem of Drew DeRidder and Pierce Charleson both gave the Gophers fits last season. Michigan State enters the weekend expecting many of the same things the Gophers presented a year ago.

MORE MINNESOTA GOPHERS COVERAGE:
Minnesota has lost 6 straight games, one behind the 7 consecutive defeats Richard Pitino’s last team at Minnesota suffered in February-March 2021.

“Their back end and goaltending is really similar. It’s outstanding. It’s world class and the way Bob has them play is real tough,” said fifth-year Spartans coach Danton Cole. “Up front, they had a lot of seniors last year but they still have a lot of guys back. They’re not hurting for depth. They’re not quite as old up front but they still seem to be pretty darn dangerous.”

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Weekend details

Friday’s game is a 5:30 p.m. CT start, while the Saturday evening rematch begins at 6:30 p.m. CT. Both contests will be televised by Big Ten Network with Ben Holden on play-by-play and Fred Pletsch offering analysis. On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco describing the action. Postgame interviews with coach Motzko and Gophers players can be seen live, roughly 10 minutes after the final horn at The Rink Live’s Facebook page.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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