On the evening of Jan. 15, the Gophers men's hockey team hit the low point of its season. The Alaska Nanooks, orphans from the broken-up WCHA and a team that had won only five of 21 games, left 3M Arena at Mariucci with a series split after a 3-2 victory.
That result left the Gophers with a pedestrian 13-9 record and a precarious spot at No. 12 in the PairWise Ratings. It also prompted coach Bob Motzko to offer this blunt assessment of his team's effort:
"We were conveniently good when it was convenient for us tonight," he said. "When it wasn't convenient, we lost a little interest."
Flash forward seven weeks, and those mid-January Gophers are a distant memory. Instead, Motzko and his team are Big Ten regular-season champions and one of the hottest squads in the country. The Gophers secured that title in the first period Saturday when Notre Dame's 2-1 win and series sweep over Michigan went final, and Minnesota punctuated the festivities with an 8-0 thrashing of Wisconsin in front of a raucous 10,069 fans. The Gophers finished with 55 points to Michigan's 51.
With their eighth consecutive win, the Gophers sit at No. 4 in the PairWise, the mathematical formula that the NCAA uses to help fill out and seed its tournament. Minnesota (23-11, 18-6 Big Ten) is a lock to make the 16-team NCAA field and could land one of the four No. 1 regional seeds. And to the Big Ten victor goes the spoils of a first-round bye into a conference tournament semifinal on March 12 at Mariucci, while the other six league teams must play best-of-three first-round series next weekend.
"We've had a lot of things happen to us, and nothing fazed us," Motzko said. "… We kept getting better all season long."
That January upset against Alaska came only six days after a bigger stunner to the program: Senior Jack LaFontaine, the reigning Mike Richter Award winner as the nation's top goalie, abruptly signed with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, a move that caused some both outside and inside the program to wonder if the Gophers' postseason aspirations were finished. Suddenly, junior Justen Close, who had only four relief appearances the previous two seasons, was thrust into the No. 1 job.
Turns out, the Saskatchewanian was more than up to the task, putting up superior numbers to LaFontaine's stats this season. Close has an 11-3 record with a 1.73 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. LaFontaine, now with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, was 12-8 with a 2.69 GAA and .900 save percentage.
Coming off a 20-save shutout on Friday, Close blanked the Badgers with 25 stops in the finale.
The Badgers (9-22-3, 6-17-1) appeared to score at 7:37 of the first, but a video review ruled goaltender interference. During the review, Notre Dame's victory over Michigan went final.
As if on cue, the Gophers took control. At 9:04 of the first, Ben Meyers scored his fourth goal in two games, blasting a shot past Badgers goalie Cameron Rowe. Only 21 seconds later, freshman Tristan Broz scored for a 2-0 lead, and the Mariucci crowd roared with joy.
Bryce Brodzinski's power-play goal made it 3-0 in the second.
Then the Gophers poured it on in the third as Sammy Walker, Mike Koster, Matthew Knies, Rhett Pitlick and Grant Cruikshank all scored to the crowd's delight.
"It was great to see a packed house, and they brought some noise with them, too," Close said.
During their eight-game win streak, the Gophers have tightened up on defense, giving up two or fewer goals seven times.
Five wins in the streak came with Olympians Meyers, Knies and Brock Faber in Beijing with Team USA. The Gophers didn't miss a beat, relying on their depth. Since returning last Saturday at Penn State, Meyers, the team's leading scorer with 34 points on 15 goals and 19 assists, has been on a tear. He had three assists against the Nittany Lions, potted his first collegiate hat trick Friday against the Badgers and started the scoring Saturday.
That effort, it turns out, helped secure a Big Ten championship. The Gophers want more.
"There's a lot of hockey left to be played, and we've got bigger aspirations as a team," Close said. "This is just one check of the box, and we've got a few more to go."