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As they visit Michigan, Gophers seek a cure for their one-goal loss 'disease'

Big wins, one-goal losses and weekend series splits have been the hallmark of the Minnesota Gophers in their 9-7-0 start this season. They close out the 2021 portion of their schedule with a series at Michigan, which has an impressive collection of NHL first-round draft picks.

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Michigan Wolverines defenseman Owen Power (22) battles for a loose puck with Minnesota Gophers forward Jack Perbix in a game at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis on Saturday, March 6, 2021. David Berding / File / The Rink Live
David Berding/The Rink Live
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There are plenty of health concerns that coaches have been aware of since the start of the pandemic, from COVID to the flu to other ailments that have torn through college hockey locker rooms and caused lineup and schedule changes.

Then there are the Minnesota Gophers, who are working hard to avoid a kind of illness for which there is no vaccine available in shot or pill form.

There have been plenty of impressive wins on the way to the Gophers’ 9-7-0 start to the 2021-22 season. Of the seven losses the Gophers have endured, five of them have been by one goal. That trend is part of a locker room ailment that has their coaches focused on ways to get a goal or two more.

“I learned a long time ago, you know what one-goal losses are: They’re a disease,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “You have to cure them. A lot of times you’ll hear people around hockey … say, ‘We’re close. One-goal losses.’ It’s the opposite. We’re working forward, and I think we’re turning the corner in a lot of areas to rectify one-goal losses.”

The challenge for the Gophers is there’s not one obvious problem to correct in the one-goal loss pattern. In games versus Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, the Gophers held a lead and it slipped away. In games versus Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and North Dakota, the Gophers played from behind and could not draw even.

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“It’s been different things,” Motzko said, noting that injures were a big factor in October and November, with key forwards Grant Cruikshank and Chaz Lucius missing extended time, and co-captain Ben Meyers playing through an undisclosed ailment that limited his on-ice effectiveness for a time.

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Minnesota Gophers forward Ben Meyers fought through the Michigan Wolverines defense in the first period of their game in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament on Monday, March 15, 2021 at Compton Family Ice Arena on the Notre Dame campus. Big Ten Conference/Mike Miller

This weekend’s series at Michigan is the Gophers’ last time on the ice before a month-long break. And it is their first series against the team that has gotten more national attention than just about any other for its collection of individual talent.

On July 23, 2021, four Wolverines heard their names called among the first five picks in the NHL Draft. Defenseman Owen Power went first overall to Buffalo, followed by Seattle plucking forward Matty Beniers. Defenseman Luke Hughes went fourth, to New Jersey, and forward Kent Johnson was the fifth pick, by Columbus.

Some national pundits immediately said that the Wolverines were on a non-stop flight for the Frozen Four in Boston, but the Big Ten coaches preferred Minnesota’s combination of talent and experience (the Gophers were 4-1-0 in their head-to-head meetings with Michigan last season) and made the Gophers the preseason pick for the conference title.

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At 12-4-0, the Wolverines have proven to be very, very good, but not unbeatable. They have scored five goals or more in half of their wins, but it is worth noting that all four losses have happened at Yost Ice Arena, which is generally considered one of college hockey’s more intimidating places for opponents to play.

“We don’t want to get into a back-and-forth game with them or let them get on the power play,” Gophers defenseman Matt Staudacher said of the game plan for countering the Wolverines. “We know that both their first and second (power-play) unit are filled with a lot of high-end, skilled players that can make plays and capitalize when they have the opportunity. So stay out of the box, stay above pucks. Slow down their forwards with good sticks and good body play and just try to battle hard.”

The Gophers won twice at Yost last season, holding the Wolverines to just one goal on the weekend, but it was an odd series. The rink was empty due to the pandemic, and several key players from both rosters were gone, prepping for World Juniors. With fans back in the buildings, Friday’s game is proving to be a tough ticket to acquire. Saturday may be a different story, with Michigan’s football team playing Iowa in the Big Ten championship game at the same time, which may have some Wolverines fans watching from home.

“There’s a lot of hype around Michigan and deservedly so, with that many first round draft picks and that much talent,” Motzko said. “We had a good year last year, so there’s an anticipation for it. We’re looking forward to it.”

Weekend details

Friday’s Gophers game at Michigan is a 5:30 p.m. CT start, while the Saturday rematch faces off at 6 p.m. CT. Both games will be televised by Big Ten Network with Fred Pletsch and Ben Holden on the call. On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM 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.

This story has been updated to correct the number of one-goal losses by the Gophers.

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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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