FARGO — Last Saturday, the Gophers and Michigan went toe-to-toe in a fast-paced hockey game for the Big Ten tournament title. The teams, loaded with NHL draftees, combined for 57 shots on goal, end-to-end rushes and skilled individual plays in a back-and-forth contest that Michigan won 4-3 with a third-period comeback.
That turned out to be the highest-scoring game of the conference tournament semifinals and finals. Seven of the 14 games had a combined three goals or fewer as teams tighten their defensive approach for tournaments.
"It just shows a couple of mistakes can lead to goals,'' Gophers center Jaxon Nelson said Wednesday. "In the playoffs, it's a lot tighter.''
While the Gophers — who open NCAA tournament play in the Fargo Regional at 8 p.m. Thursday against Canisius at Scheels Arena — have a star-studded roster heavy on offensive talent, coach Bob Motzko believes his team can play the shutdown game that's often needed in a one-and-done tournament. The Gophers rank second nationally at 4.08 goals per game, while they're giving up 2.28 per contest, ninth in the nation.
"We're going to start with our goalie,'' Motzko said of Justen Close. "And our 'D' corps. We've built this through experience.''
'He's a rock back there'
Close has gone from a third-stringer who rarely played for 2½ seasons to the goalie who has backstopped the Gophers (26-9-1) to back-to-back Big Ten regular-season championships and the No. 1 overall seed in this year's tournament. Close sports a 23-9-1 record with a 2.02 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and six shutouts, and he's a big reason why the Gophers are 12-5 against teams in this year's tournament, a .706 winning percentage that's the best in the field.
Close also has earned his chops in the NCAA tournament, posting a 24-save shutout in the Worcester (Mass.) Regional final last year after making 20 saves in a 4-3 overtime win over defending national champion Massachusetts in the first round.
"He's the rock back there, and he has been ever since he took over the net,'' Gophers defenseman and captain Brock Faber said. "His demeanor, his day-to-day lifestyle, just how he carries himself. … He's resilient. He loves this program, and he's obviously a pretty darn good goalie, too.''
Faber, the two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of Year, also can score. With six points in five career NCAA games, he is the leading returning scorer in the tournament. Jackson LaCombe (eight goals, 24 assists this season), Mike Koster (5-20-25) and Ryan Johnson (4-14-18) bring offense, while freshmen Ryan Chesley and Luke Mittelstadt progressed well as the season has gone along.
Still, that talent won't mean anything without grit, and Faber emphasizes that small things add up to big moments in the NCAA tournament.
"The details become a lot more important,'' he said. "Obviously, there's a lot more sacrifice in playoff hockey — blocking shots, taking a hit to make a play, little things like that.''
In Canisius (20-18-3), the Gophers will face a veteran team that is playing its best at the right time. With an average age of 23.5 years, Canisius is the oldest team in the field, while the Gophers, at 21.3 years, are tied with Michigan as the youngest. The Golden Griffins started the season 5-11-2 but are 15-7-1 since Jan. 13, and that's produced a confident group.
"We're here to win,'' said Canisius goalie Jacob Barczewski, who has three shutouts and has given up a total of eight goals in his past eight games. "We earned this moment.''
Said Motzko, "You're catching the team that's feeling it right now.''
Entering a hostile environment?
The regional host in Fargo is North Dakota, and even though the Fighting Hawks didn't make the NCAA field, Motzko expects UND fans — those who haven't sold their tickets — to make things uncomfortable for the Gophers.
"Let's just get right to it: If any of the green fans show up, you know who they're against,'' Motzko said. "The two other Minnesota teams [are against the Gophers]. We are the most hated team in the state.''
If that turns out to be true, that's another motivational tool the Gophers can use. Defeating Canisius and taking another step toward a repeat trip to the Frozen Four is their first aim.
"It's the most exciting time of the year,'' Faber said. "This is what it's all about.''