Lou Nanne has been synonymous with hockey in Minnesota since his debut with the Gophers in 1960, through his time with the North Stars, to his current role as local hockey sage.

So, when asked his thoughts on the Gophers' highly productive top line of Logan Cooley centering wingers Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud, Nanne responded immediately and forcefully.

"It's the best line I've ever seen at the University,'' he declared.

That's high praise for the trio, considering they play for a program that has produced 59 All-America honorees, four Hobey Baker Award winners and 228 NHL draft picks. Nanne, though, is not alone in his assessment.

"They're right up there,'' said broadcaster Pat Micheletti, the Gophers' second all-time leading scorer. "It's ridiculous how good they are."

Knies, the Big Ten Player of the Year as a sophomore, and the two freshmen, Cooley and Snuggerud, have combined for 59 goals, 79 assists and countless oohs and ahhs.

It's not only their scoring totals that are impressive. It's also the combination of high-end skill, jaw-dropping creativity, work ethic and tenacity that sets the trio apart. Thanks in large part to this line, the Gophers (26-8-1) are the nation's top-ranked team, won the Big Ten regular-season title by a record 19 points and aspire to win the program's first national championship since 2003.

Watch 'em while you can.

Fans might have just one more chance to see the trio on home ice, and that's 7 p.m. Saturday against No. 4 Michigan (23-11-3) in the Big Ten tournament championship game at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

After that comes the NCAA tournament. Minnesota will be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall seed and will find out its regional destination when the NCAA field is announced Sunday. Two regional wins would put the Gophers in the NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., on April 6-8. After that, NHL teams might come calling.

Knies was a second-round draft pick (No. 57 overall) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021. The 6-3, 210-pound left winger is a Hobey Baker candidate and plays a relentless, physical style, attributes that are attractive to Toronto's brass. Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas checked up on Knies at the Gophers' Feb. 25 home game against Ohio State.

Cooley, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree, was selected No. 3 overall by the Arizona Coyotes in last year's draft. At 5-10 and 180 pounds, the center could benefit from another collegiate year to mature and build strength, but the Coyotes need skill, and Cooley is brimming with it. "Cooley is magic," Micheletti said.

Snuggerud, a second-team All-Big Ten performer, was drafted No. 23 overall by St. Louis last year. The 6-1, 185-pound right winger has an amazingly quick release on his shots, and that could tempt the rebuilding Blues.

"I don't think any of us are trying to think too much about that stuff yet," Knies said of NHL speculation. "In our heads right now is a national championship; it's winning the Big Ten. When that time comes, we all can make a decision and see what's best for our future."

The present, though, for the Gophers has been special. Coach Bob Motzko put the trio together three weeks into the season and it has produced 15 game-winning goals. One of those goals, in that Ohio State game, showed off a complementary skill from each player.

With the score tied 2-2 late in the second period, Snuggerud won a battle for the puck in the corner, then quickly fed a pass to Knies, who was breaking in tight on goal. Rather than shoot, Knies heard Cooley right behind him, calling for the puck. Knies deftly dropped a pass back between his legs to Cooley, who had a better angle and roofed the puck over Buckeyes goalie Jakub Dobes for the winner in an eventual 5-2 triumph.

"I was screaming for it, and [Knies] heard me, but that was a great forecheck by Snuggs," Cooley said. "Kniesy makes those plays all the time. Luckily, it found me."

Said Scott Bell, the former Gophers captain, assistant coach and current Maple Leafs scout: "It was smart, clever, crafty, intelligent, skillful and unselfish."

From Pittsburgh to the U

Cooley, a Pittsburgh native, grew up in a hockey family. Uncles John Mooney and Tom Mooney played at Colorado College and Notre Dame, respectively. His brother, Eric, played at both Niagara and Ohio State, and his brother, Riley, played for New Mexico of the NAHL. That instilled a love of hockey and a competitive nature in Logan, his father, Eric, said.

"That's from getting thrown around by the older brothers," Eric said of the battles in the backyard rink.

As he honed his game on the ice, Cooley tagged along with his brothers as a young teen to Blaze Sports Performance in West Mifflin, Pa., to build his body. The gym's owner, Nate Blazevich, saw a curious and dedicated athlete.

"He's always interested in ways to be better," Blazevich said. "They would get up at 6 a.m. for their skate, and then right after that, they would come and work out with me. I don't have air conditioning here, so it's the middle of July and it's 90-something degrees, but never once did I hear complaints."

Cooley played for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite program for two years, during which he verbally committed to Notre Dame at age 14.

After joining USA Hockey's national team development program in Plymouth, Mich., in 2020-21, Cooley met Snuggerud, a Chaska native. They roomed together and played on the same line for two seasons, combining for 51 goals and 87 assists for the under-18 team in 2021-22.

The U.S. team played the Gophers at Mariucci that season, and Snuggerud and Gophers freshman defenseman Ryan Chesley helped sell Cooley on Minnesota.

"Ches and I did our best to try to get him to come here," Snuggerud said.

Creating a legacy

Snuggerud is a third-generation Gopher. His father, Dave, was an All-America forward for the Gophers in 1989 and played for the U.S. Olympic team the year before. His grandfather James Westby played on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team and was Nanne's defensive partner with the Gophers for a year.

Dave said Jimmy took to hockey quickly and was a typical rink rat, but he also took in the mental part of the game.

"He loved watching hockey," Dave said. "He loved watching high school hockey, watching his sister play. He spent a lot of time watching the Gophers, watching the Wild. He learned a lot just by watching the game."

Dave encouraged Jimmy to check out options to find the college fit that was right for him. Turns out, it was his dad's alma mater. Important footnote: In Dave's senior season of 1988-89, the Gophers lost 4-3 in overtime to Harvard in the NCAA title game at the St. Paul Civic Center.

"Something I know he regrets the most is losing that game to Harvard," Jimmy said. "I hear about it every day. 'Go help your team win a national championship.' It's something we're trying to accomplish, and it's set in our minds every day."

Competitive fire burns bright

Knies' parents, Miro and Michaela, emigrated from Slovakia and settled in Phoenix before Matthew was born. His older brother, Phil, was a captain for Miami (Ohio) and is playing in Slovakia this season.

"[Matthew] got dragged to the rink every once in a while, and I remember just him watching his older brother," Miro said. "As soon as he started walking, he wanted to get on skates as well."

Matthew's parents encouraged their boys to try other sports such as soccer and tennis to become well-rounded, which they did, but hockey was Matthew's destiny at a young age.

"You could see his passion," Miro said. "You could see his competitiveness."

Matthew played for the Phoenix Junior Coyotes in his age 13 through 16 seasons before joining the Tri-City Storm of the USHL for two seasons. He ended up picking the Gophers.

"It just felt like a great fit for me, and it's definitely been a good transition," said Knies, whose freshman season included a trip to the Beijing Olympics with Team USA and scoring key goals in each of the Gophers' NCAA regional games to advance to the Frozen Four.

Knies' play certainly has the attention of the Maple Leafs, and Bell sees a player who will sacrifice to succeed.

"I like his determination, his willingness to engage in battles," Bell said. "… You can have all the size in the world, but if you don't use it, if you don't work, it doesn't mean anything."

Micheletti sees those traits in all three members of the line.

"Typically, in a good line, you have two guys that are the drivers of the line and then a third does that mucking up, that dirty work," he said. "With these guys, all three of them get their noses dirty. … They don't care who scores. They will make the right play for the betterment of the team."

As the NCAA tournament nears, Motzko has a team poised for success. He's said his defensive group, led by Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson, is the best he has ever had. The coach also is quick to credit the depth and complementary scoring on his forward lines. Still, the Cooley line is special.

"They're an awfully talented group, and when they get on, they're on," Motzko said. "… They're sure a lot of fun."