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First Impressions: Minnesota

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Minnesota officially began Year 2 of the Bob Motzko regime this past weekend with a split on the road against Colorado College. Minnesota took a 1-0 lead into the third period on Friday night before a wild back-and-forth final stanza saw the Gophers eventually lose 3-2. On Saturday night, they fell behind 2-0 in the first period, but rallied back to win the game 4-3.

Friday’s game was televised, and I had a chance to catch the game. Here were some of my early thoughts on Minnesota.

Overall, it was a promising start for Minnesota, despite taking the loss on Friday night. I don’t think they’re where they would like to be yet, and it would be a surprise if they competed for the top of the Big Ten and made the NCAA tournament this year. But you can start to see some of the pieces being put into place, and while I don’t think this group has the maturity and experience to produce consistently, they’ll certainly have moments throughout the season where they look great.

The big difference in Friday night’s game was that Minnesota didn’t have an answer for Colorado College’s top line of Chris Wilkie-Ben Copeland-Nick Halloran. That line scored all three goals for Colorado College, and would have had a couple more with some better bounces off goalposts.

At this point in the season, I don’t think Minnesota has an answer for that. I wrote before the season about how even though the overall talent level may have risen for Minnesota with this incoming class, replacing an All-American forward like Rem Pitlick was going to be near impossible. Sammy Walker could potentially that guy, and in fact, he had a hand in two goals in the victory on Saturday. But I’m not sure he has the pieces around him to do that consistently, and on Friday, he had a fairly quiet game. Overall, it’s an extremely young group of Minnesota forwards, which means it is very likely there are some nights where things click and it looks great, but also a lot of nights where it doesn’t, and things look ugly.

It’s largely the same story for the defense. You can see them taking steps forward in terms of overall talent, but it’s still a very young group, and there will likely be growing pains. I thought first round draft pick Ryan Johnson looked extremely good right out of the gate. Jackson LaCombe was a little more up-and-down throughout the game, but the talent is evident. In Johnson, I think they’ll finally get their high-end puck-moving defenseman that can create offense that they have missed since Mike Reilly left for the pros.

The bigger question on the blue line might be who is going to actually defend. Colorado College’s top line was great, no doubt, but part of me feels like they had the type of free reign they did because Minnesota doesn’t really have a clear shutdown D pairing to turn to. Ben Brinkman, who is still an extremely young sophomore, is probably the closest they have. Tyler Nanne is still wildly inconsistent from shift-to-shift. Matt Staudacher isn’t huge, but plays with a toughness in his game, but that’s a big ask for a freshman. He could be a rock on the blue line in a couple years though.

Overall, Minnesota is going to have to be a team that defends by possessing the puck a lot of the time. I could see that working reasonably well with some of the puck-movers they have, but they showed a real vulnerability against teams with top-end offensive talent.

Finally, the Gophers gave each goalie one start over the weekend, and the results didn’t do much to clear the starting goalie situation. Jack Lafontaine got the start on Friday night and was fine, but not outstanding. He got bailed out by a couple goalposts early in the game, but made all the saves he could have, save maybe one. I didn’t see Saturday’s game, but I got a similar impression on the way Jared Moe played. I’d expect the two to split time for much of the first half of the season before one starts to emerge. At this point, it could still be either one, but it looks like goaltending should be fine for Minnesota.