MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Gophers didn’t have a college hockey game for eight months. With the return of Big Ten competition and the schedule juggling that has taken place to accommodate a 28-game season, it now seems like they have a game every few hours.
After sweeping Penn State on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, the Gophers jump right back into play on roughly 72 hours rest, hosting Ohio State on Monday and Tuesday evenings at 3M Arena at Mariucci. How will the team adjust to the condensed schedule and having two days off, rather than five, between series?
“Honestly, we’ll tell you on Monday and Tuesday. This is something that we normally don’t do here,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko on Sunday, Nov. 22, before the team practiced. While the Gophers have two games completed, these meetings will be the season opener for the Buckeyes.
“We have some advantage because we’ve played, so we’re going to be in a little bit more game mode than Ohio State, but we’re also vulnerable to wearing down, playing four games in six nights,” Motzko said. “It’s not ideal at all for a physical sport to start a season without any games and then play four games in six nights. But it is what it is. We’ve got to use our brains, we’ve got to use our depth, we’ve got to use everybody, and everybody’s got to find a way to contribute.”
As contributions go, Motzko loved what he saw in the 4-1 and 3-2 wins over Penn State, especially from his more experienced players.
“We feel very good. I like the fact that our seniors got on the board — (Brannon) McManus, (Cullen) Munson, (Scott) Reedy — there’s your upperclassmen that find a way to contribute, and (goalie) Jack LaFontaine picked up where he was last year,” Motzko said.
For the Buckeyes, it starts in goal, as they return one of the Big Ten’s most experienced puck-stoppers. Tommy Nappier played a small role in their run to the Frozen Four in 2018 and backstopped Ohio State’s first Big Ten title in 2019. His .934 career saves percentage is second in all of college hockey.
“That’s not a bad place to start. With his experience coming back, you’ve got to kind of rely on that,” said Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik, the St. Paul native who is beginning his eighth season running the Ohio State program. “With a lot of new faces over the last couple of years, we definitely have to count on (Nappier) and then who knows right now. We haven’t played so you’re not sure.”
The Gophers were 2-1-1 versus the Buckeyes last season, winning twice at home and getting a loss and tie in two overtime games in Columbus. Rohlik said the Gophers being picked to win the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll was no surprise.
“It’s a good year to have experience, it’s a good year to have depth and it’s a good year to have skill, and the Gophers obviously check those boxes,” Rohlik said, after his team arrived in Minneapolis on Sunday. “That’s who they are and that’s what they are. They’re a very good hockey team.”
Between the dots
Game time on Monday and Tuesday is 7:30 p.m. CT. The normal Gophers radio crew of Wally Shaver, Frank Mazzocco and Pat Micheletti will have the call on 1130 AM/103.5 FM and streamed on iHeartRadio. Big Ten Network will televise both games with Dan Kelly and Fred Pletsch calling the action remotely.
Perhaps our favorite bit of hockey history connecting the Gophers and Buckeyes programs is the coaching career of the late Glen Sonmor. Long before he led the Minnesota North Stars to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1981, Sonmor got his first chance to be a head coach in 1965 at Ohio State, in the very early days of Buckeyes varsity hockey. After one season in Columbus, in which Sonmor led the Buckeyes to a 9-7-0 record, he was lured back to the Twin Cities to coach the Gophers for the next five-plus seasons. He also coached the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association and the North Stars, and was a Gophers broadcaster for many years. Sonmor died in December 2015 at a nursing home in Ontario due to pneumonia. He had battled Alzheimer’s disease for the last few years of his life.
The Gophers and Buckeyes have played 44 times previously, dating back to 1968. Minnesota owns a 17-2-3 record versus Ohio State at home.
Start times for the Gophers' games at Michigan on Dec. 8-9 have been released. The Tuesday series opener will begin at 7:30 p.m. CT, while the Wednesday rematch will face off at 5:30 p.m. CT.