Myers: Gophers toss the pretty, embrace the gritty to get one step closer to the shiny stuff
Springtime in the northland can be a grind, especially if you want to win college hockey games. The Minnesota Gophers needed about 25 minutes to be reminded of that, and then things got simple.
FARGO — Hockey, at its heart, is not a simple game. You need to know how to skate, you need lots of padding, you need an expensive stick, and then you need to know how to use it.
Learning to play hockey is hard. Learning how to play hockey well is very, very hard. Learning how to do what some of this season’s Minnesota Gophers can do is practically impossible.
But once you learn all of that fancy stuff, the way to succeed in the college hockey playoffs is simple. As in, keep the game simple. Don’t get fancy.
For a while Thursday in their NCAA playoffs-opening 9-2 blowout of Canisius, the Gophers tried to play the fancy game, and it was looking disastrous. Then they put that cool-looking, shiny stuff away and focused on the gritty hockey that seems to always get the job done after we switch the clocks to Daylight Saving Time.
The Gophers’ first goal exemplified the ordinary hockey you need to excel in the playoffs. Low on the goal line, nothing to shoot at, so throw the puck at the net and see what happens. Luke Mittelstad did just that, getting a carom off the Griffs goalie and his first NCAA playoff goal. In the process, he put a dent in one of the notions coming into the game — that the Canisius power play was impenetrable to a level on par with a Kardashian family prenup.
Then the Gophers got fancy, and it looked cool. Like fireworks, kind of. And similar to fireworks, when all of the pretty bursts were over, all that was left to show for them were a few puffs of smoke. The Griffs scored twice on gritty plays, getting the puck to the net and seeing what happens — much to the delight of roughly 1/3 of the audience at Scheels Arena. Those jubilant fans were primarily clad in various shades of green, and had been life-long Canisius fans since late Sunday night.
Most of the time when the Griffs threw pucks at the net, what happened was those quiet, perfectly positioned saves that goalie Justen Close has mastered in his 15 months as the Gophers every night starter. But a few times the puck got through, enough to give Canisius a 2-1 lead and bring their emerald army to life.
Less than a week earlier, Gophers coach Bob Motzko had referred to his team’s 4-3 come-from-ahead loss to Michigan in the Big Ten title game a lesson. Perhaps, what the Gophers learned that night was this: in March, gritty beats pretty, nearly every time. Rhett Pitlick’s highlight reel goal in the third period against the Wolverines gave Minnesota a lead. Two gritty “get to the net, shoot from anywhere, hack away until you see the red light” goals later gave Michigan a trophy.
The second period has been the Gophers’ best all season, and before Thursday’s middle frame was over, they were back in front to stay. The way they did it was maybe another lesson for their Saturday showdown with St. Cloud State with an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida on the line. Shoot the puck. Preferably toward the goalie. Get traffic in front of their crease. If your shot is blocked, shoot again.
They did that versus the Griffins. Aaron Huglen threw a puck at the net and it went in. Connor Kurth got a shot off with a Griffin draped on him. It went in. Bryce Brodzinski blasted the puck at the net, and it went in. Three times.
"We weren't going to get any fancy plays. (The Griffins) were keeping three, four guys back and three guys across the line. We had no choice but to dump pucks," Motzko said, admitting that for a rare time this season he shortened his bench, and used the TV timeouts strategically. "That was the key to us coming back. We had to play a grind game and it's something we're continually getting better at."
It was simple, and it worked, bringing the Gophers one game closer to their ultimate goal — the program’s first NCAA title in two decades.
Just three more gritty wins and, in an ironic turn, they will be feted with jewelry and trophies and parades and fancy professional hockey contracts. But to get there, the route is, well, simple.