Thursday morning, about nine hours before the Gophers men’s hockey team opened its season against Penn State, Bob Motzko had some uncertain moments at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“I wish you would have been in our office about 10:30 this morning,’’ he told reporters after the Gophers defeated the Nittany Lions 4-1. “I can’t go into it, but it was like, ‘whatever.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen. All the Penn State guys were negative today. We were negative today.’’
This being 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic still doing its wicked thing, it’s easy to surmise that Motzko was awaiting word on COVID-19 test results and wondering whether his full roster would be available. All players were available Thursday and again Friday afternoon, when the Gophers completed a sweep with a 3-2 victory. Still, the ongoing uncertainty hammered home that point that teams face two opponents in 2020 — those in the other uniform and this virus that preys on people in close proximity with each other.
“Here we go, it’s a Friday night, then Saturday, and our guys know we play Monday,’’ Motzko said after the series finale, emphasizing his expectation that his players will adhere to stringent social distancing. “That puts us in a good spot. I anticipate we’ll be in a great spot Monday, ready to go.’’
In this compressed season, the Gophers return to action 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday for a series against Ohio State at Mariucci. Motzko left the arena Friday not only impressed with his team’s play but cautiously optimistic that his sport can handle the challenge.
“It’s not over … but hockey can manage it because we’ve got lower [roster] numbers,’’ he said. “Football has such big numbers. We’ve got a lot smaller numbers and we’re secluded, kind of in a bubble.
“But it’s really up to our players in how they handle this socially,’’ Motzko added. “Once they leave the rink, they’ve got to be smart.’’
One needed to look only across Southeast Oak Street to TCF Bank Stadium to see that hockey/football point. The Gophers football team on Friday played without more than 20 players in its 34-31 victory over Purdue because of a combination of COVID-19 concerns and injuries. Offensive line coach Brian Callahan and two other staffers missed the game because of positive COVID-19 tests.
Motzko knows well what COVID-19 can do, because he caught it in mid-October and was away from the arena for two weeks. “It beat me up pretty good,’’ he said.
The same could be said about the Gophers’ performance against Penn State. In sweeping the Nittany Lions for the first time since February 2017, Minnesota showed the type of talent, depth and grit that it will need to become a national contender in Motzko’s third year in charge. Sampo Ranta’s end-to-end goal highlighted the balanced scoring on Thursday, and on Friday, Scott Reedy scored in the final second of a power play and Sammy Walker put the Gophers ahead for good on a goal with one second left in the first period.
The Gophers did it, too, with tight defense against a Penn State team that suffered substantial losses to graduation but still likes any shot it can take. Nittany Lions winger Alex Limoges, who has 103 points in his career, was held without a point and was a minus-4 for the series. Motzko matched lines led by Sammy Walker and Ben Meyers on the trio featuring Limoges.
“That was us putting pressure on them,’’ Motzko said. “The best way to defend is make them play defense.’’
Said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky: “All in all, I don’t think we played that poorly. Minnesota is an excellent team, and they played very, very disciplined hockey.’’
That discipline, 2020 keeps reminding, is just as important off the ice for a team to succeed.
• The Big Ten announced starting times for the Gophers’ series at Michigan. The Dec. 8 game will begin at 7:30 p.m. and the Dec. 9 game at 5:30 p.m. Both games will be on BTN.