Puck Drop
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When the Gophers men’s hockey schedule was released last summer, a few weekends popped out as must-see events: the home-and-home against national champ Minnesota Duluth, a trip to Colorado College and the visit from rival North Dakota. And there also was the cherry on top to start the second half of the season: the return of the Mariucci Classic after a two-year absence with an all-Minnesota format featuring Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Bemidji State.

For the Gophers, the big question was if they’d be up to the task. After all, they were 5-9-4 through the season’s first half, and the program hadn’t been world-beaters of late in the Mariucci Classic, winning only two of the previous nine events from 2007 to ’16 and even needing overtime to salvage third place against RIT in 2015. That was a far cry from Minnesota’s heyday in the event, when it won eight straight Classics from 1999 to 2006.

Turns out, the Gophers found the consistency needed to grind out a 5-2 win over defensive-minded Bemidji State on Saturday, then surge to a 4-1 victory over a St. Cloud State team that had taken No. 2-ranked Minnesota State to the woodshed in a 7-2 blowout a day earlier.

“Our guys came to play,’’ Gophers coach Bob Motzko said in an understatement. “They did a terrific job.’’

The Gophers got pucks in deep, cut down on turnovers and reacted quickly rather than having to think about a play. The uptick in play was especially apparent on defense, where freshmen Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe stood out with their poise, while seniors Tyler Nanne and Ryan Zuhlsdorf showed up with grit. The Gophers blocked 21 shots by the Huskies – four on a key five-on-three penalty kill in the second period – with Zuhlsdorf sacrificing his body for five, Nanne for four, forward Scott Reedy for three and LaCombe and forward Blake McLaughlin for two.

“Blocked shots, willingness to play for each other. We’re growing,’’ Motzko observed.

As for the tournament as an event, the Gophers brass certainly would have liked to see more folks in 3M Arena at Mariucci than the 7,615 they announced on Saturday and the 6,772 on Sunday. The weather did them no favors, especially with Saturday morning’s glare ice-coated roads that made the living room couch a tempting destination for the day. Minnesota’s sub-.500 record entering the weekend, of course, didn’t help, either.

Still, Motzko saw plenty to like in the all-Minnesota format, and not just because his team won the tournament.

“I liked the crowds. I wish the students were around, but they’re all gone right now. That would have given the building a really different feel,’’ he said. “It was a success from our standpoint – obviously, when you win the thing.

“… I think there was some flavor to it, I really do. We’ll see if we can pull it off again or at least have more Minnesota teams coming back,’’ he added.

Motzko wants to use the weekend’s success as a springboard to a strong second half. The Gophers are off until the Jan. 10-11 series at Michigan State, then have a Jan. 17 exhibition against the U.S. Under-18 team before six consecutive weekends of Big Ten play.

“This sure is a nice way to start the new year, the second half of our season,’’ Motzko said. “Let’s build on that.’’