Gophers look to hockey's version of 'small ball' to snap scoring slump
The Minnesota Gophers have gone nearly a month without scoring four or more goals in a game, and look at players trying to hit the hockey version of a home run every shift as one problem. With the Big Ten hockey playoffs...
MINNEAPOLIS — When you’re standing at the plate on a baseball diamond, and you swing for the fences, you are apt to strike out as often as you send a ball into home run territory. In fact, the two men who stuck out more often than any other in American pro baseball history were renowned power hitters Reggie Jackson and Jim Thome, who each saw strike three more than 2,500 times.
As they open the Big Ten hockey playoffs this weekend with a best-of-three series versus Notre Dame at 3M Arena at Mariucci, the Minnesota Gophers’ coach is hoping his team can learn, quickly, that the on-ice version of swinging for the fences on every shift is an idea where the risks outweigh the rewards.
Bob Motzko’s biggest concern entering a weekend that is likely an elimination series, with either the Gophers (14-13-7) or Irish almost certainly done for the season by Sunday evening, is a recent lack of offense. His team took five of a possible six points from Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., just three weeks ago, but has gone nearly a month without scoring four goals or more in a game. Last weekend, in a tie and loss to Michigan, the Gophers managed just three goals in 125 minutes of hockey. Part of the problem, Motzko said, is a "home run" mentality that can be dangerous in the postseason, when games are usually tighter and more defensive. He used co-captain and leading scorer Sammy Walker as an example.
"As the game goes on when you’re playing Michigan this past weekend, Sammy is out swinging for the fences, trying to score on every shift," Motzko said. "We talked to him about it. He did that early in the year too, and then he gets frustrated."
The antidote, is a simpler game.
"Be patient, put it in deep, get on their forecheck, wear them down, shorten up your shifts," Motzko said, adding that like Michigan, Notre Dame is a team that looks very comfortable in a 0-0 game, and is content to wait for a power play or an opponent’s mistake to pounce on an offensive opportunity.
The Irish (14-13-7) won and tied the Gophers in Minneapolis in November, then the Gophers returned the favor over Valentine’s Day weekend in Indiana. Notre Dame was one standings point away from hosting this weekend’s series, but instead ended up seeded fifth in the seven-team Big Ten, and will need to win at least three road games if the Irish are to make a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
"I think we’ve played pretty good hockey in the second half. We still have some inconsistencies in our game where we’re a little bit up and down from game to game, and in that way it’s been a rollercoaster ride," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. "We have played well on the road here in the second half...and that gives me confidence going into Minnesota in that we have a fairly good idea of what we have to do to be successful on the road."
Motzko’s first season as the Gophers coach ended abruptly via an overtime loss at Notre Dame in the 2019 playoffs. It is a new season and a new team, but players who were in South Bend for that disappointment 51 weeks ago have not forgotten.
"Anytime you can play a team that ended your season, it’s going to ramp up," Gophers co-captain Tyler Nanne said. "For us seniors that were on the team last year, it wasn’t a good ending, by any means...It’s a big weekend and we’re ready for it."
Even if that means laying down a bunt once in a while.
Friday’s game is a 7 p.m. start and will be televised on FS2. Saturday’s game also faces off at 7 p.m. with Fox Sports North Plus handling the broadcast. If necessary, game three will start at 6 p.m. Sunday and can be seen on FS2. Last season, a first round playoff series with Michigan had very low attendance. In an effort to avoid a repeat, the school is selling tickets for as low as $20 for the Notre Dame series. More information is available on the Gophers hockey website, https://gophersports.com/sports/mens-ice-hockey .
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