Many people came into tonight’s exhibition between the University of Minnesota and the US National Team Development Program U18 team knowing that this year’s iteration of the U18s was not the strongest team The Program has ever produced. There was no Auston Matthews, who two years ago put on an amazing display to lead the U18s to a 5-4 overtime victory over the Golden Gophers before ascending beyond the limitations of mortal beings. There was no Thatcher Demko, whose brilliant 39-save performance salvaged a 2-2 draw against the Gophers in 2012, in goal.
But nothing could have quite prepared those in attendance for the merciless beating delivered by the Gophers, and the ease with which they did so, in a 9-0 blowout victory.
Minnesota rookie Rem Pitlick tapped home a loose puck in the crease at 8:31 of the first period, the first of three goals and four points on the night to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. The Gophers tacked on three more goals before the end of the first period, and added four more in the second period before easing up on the gas in the third period.
In an exhibition game like this, in which no official points nationally or in conference are at stake, the question frequently asked is what information can you take away from this game? Are the U18s really that bad? Is Minnesota really that good?
I’ll start by saying, no, I don’t think the U18s are as bad as they showed tonight. They’re definitely not great, but they’re young kids and they’re prone to bad nights now and again. And they can’t afford that against a quality team like Minnesota.
Minnesota is the more interesting half of the equation. I’m not sure you can draw too many conclusions based on the results against such an over-matched team. I don’t see Jack Ramsey, who has gone 32 NCAA games without a goal, weaving and dangling through the opposition defense the way he did tonight against a higher-caliber opponent. But the way Minnesota went about their business was extremely impressive.
The Gophers have been plagued in the past by a willingness to play down to the level of an over-matched opponent and let them linger in games far too long. It’s easy to imagine this team meandering to a two or three-goal victory tonight and people brushing it off as an early-season exhibition that doesn’t mean much. There was none of that tonight. Minnesota struck early and refused to let up.
The reputation of this year’s Minnesota team coming into the season was that they maybe had a little less high-profile talent—inasmuch as you can say that about a team with four second round NHL picks—but with a number of undrafted upperclassmen at forward that could provide a little more of a hard-working, tough-to-play aesthetic.
Tonight at least, they looked like a team ready to take advantage of the still-considerable amount of talent that they have.
And one final thought: 365 days ago tonight, Rem Pitlick was in Muskegon, sitting at one point in three games on the season, giving him 17 points in 50 career USHL games, and there was legitimate question of whether he’d ever actually play for Minnesota. 88 points in the next 53 USHL games, a selection in the third round of the NHL Draft, and there was no question he was the main driver of Minnesota’s offense tonight. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a kid that has definitely put in the work to make it happen.