See more of the story

The plan, in Bob Motzko's mind, was straightforward. The Gophers men's hockey coach would rely on his deep and veteran defensive corps, plus goalie Justen Close, to "hold down the fort'' while a group of 10 talented freshman skaters rounded into form.

More than halfway through the season, the Gophers for the most part have performed like troops guarding Fort Knox. Whether that results in Minnesota collecting NCAA tournament gold will play out from early January through mid-April. So far, the results are intriguing.

"We had a very good first half,'' Motzko said. "… It's showing signs that it's coming together.''

The signs include a 15-5 overall record and a 10-2 Big Ten mark that has the Gophers atop the conference standings by eight points. Minnesota has won eight of its past 10 games and is No. 1 in the PairWise Ratings, the mathematical formula that the NCAA uses to pick and seed its tournament.

The Gophers knew they would be solid along the blue line, with junior captain Brock Faber returning to lead a unit that also includes seniors Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson, plus junior Mike Koster. Faber, a second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings who traded his rights to the Wild, already has surpassed his previous career high for points with 15 on three goals and 12 assists.

LaCombe, a second-round pick by Anaheim, has a team-high 16 assists along with four goals. Johnson, a first-round pick by Buffalo, and Koster, a fifth-round pick by Toronto, have been solid, with nine and 11 points, respectively.

"That's tremendous leadership," Motzko said. "They've been a steady, calming force for our group."

That even-keel approach has worked well for a team that lost three of its top five scorers from last season's NCAA Frozen Four team in Hobey Baker Award finalist Ben Meyers plus four-year stalwarts Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker. In addition, Chaz Lucius signed with the Winnipeg Jets organization, and fellow freshman Tristan Broz transferred to Denver.

Finding their footing

Motzko brought in an ultra-skilled freshman class led by center Logan Cooley, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft by Arizona, and Jimmy Snuggerud, selected No. 23 by St. Louis.

Snuggerud announced his presence with authority by collecting a hat trick against Minnesota State Mankato in the third game of the season, while Cooley took a bit longer to find his footing, enduring a stretch of eight games with no goals. In the past seven games, however, Cooley has 15 points on seven goals and eight assists, including a lacrosse-style score against Arizona State as Coyotes officials watched in Tempe, Ariz.

"It was behind the net, and I thought it would be a good time to try it,'' Cooley said afterward. "Luckily, it went in.''

There's more than luck involved with that success. Cooley and Snuggerud were linemates with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and Motzko put them on a line with sophomore Matthew Knies, a Toronto second-round draft pick who's elevated his game.

They have combined for 74 points, with Snuggerud (12-15-27) ranking second nationally in points, Cooley (10-15-25) fifth and Knies (11-11-22) tied for 12th.

The Gophers are getting secondary scoring from the line of Jaxon Nelson centering Bryce Brodzinski and Mason Nevers, which has combined for 23 goals and 29 assists. Nelson has been key on the faceoff dot, too, winning 59.6% of his draws.

Attention to details

Not everything has been perfect for the Gophers, who've given up 24 goals in their five losses. With as much offensive skill as the team possesses, Motzko sees times when his team strays from its all-around focus.

"Every once in a while ... we start to look for offense,'' he said. "When you do that, that's when we've gotten off our game. That's our group learning that.''

So far, the Gophers have been a quick study. After exhibition games against the USNTDP and Bemidji State on Dec. 29 and 31, respectively, Minnesota resumes its season with a home-and-home series against No. 4 St. Cloud State on Jan. 7-8. Six Big Ten series follow before the postseason begins in early March, when the stakes and expectations ramp up.

"It kind of comes with our program," Motzko said, secure in the belief his team is built to contend.


The Gophers are off for finals and winter break. Here's what's next:

Dec. 29: Home exhibition vs. U.S. national under-18 team

Dec. 31: Road exhibition at Bemidji State

Jan. 7: Road game at St. Cloud State

Jan. 8: Home game vs. St. Cloud State