MINNEAPOLIS – In the eyes of Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko, even Jack LaFontaine being in net wouldn’t have helped salvage what turned into a disappointing nonconference loss on Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The 8th ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers seemed to be a step behind a gritty Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks team all evening, and not being able to convert seven power plays and Blake McLaughlin taking a brutal late game misconduct penalty didn’t help matters in a 3-2 loss.
“Really disappointed in our group, especially the upperclassmen,” a visibly upset Motzko said after the game. “We can’t give up what we gave up. Really poor.”
Motzko later stated that the same line (Minnesota’s top line of forwards) was on the ice for all three Alaska goals, and a lack of backcheck did them in. But he did give credit where it was due, and that was with Gustavs Grigals, the Nanooks goaltender.
“Their goalie was the best guy on the ice tonight. There’s no question he was outstanding,” he said.
Justen Close, starting his second straight game after LaFontaine’s stunning departure for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes earlier in the week, made 12 saves. Considering the circumstances in which he suddenly found himself as the team’s starting goaltender, he had a solid weekend.
“It was a long time coming for sure,” Close said when asked about how it felt leading his team out of the tunnel for the first time this weekend.
However, the story of the game was his counterpart, Grigals. Grigals was simply tremendous on Saturday, stopping 36 of 38 Minnesota shots. 24 of those saves came in the final two periods, and that’s astounding considering he took a shot to the neck during a Gophers power play late in the first period. Grigals was facedown for a few minutes before eventually getting back to his knees and then his skates, getting right back between the pipes.
“[Grigals] was fantastic,” Alaska head coach Erik Largen said.
Playing in the last game of a four-game, cross-country road trip, Alaska jumped out in front 59 seconds into the contest as Filip Fornaa Svennson picked up a rebound and lifted a beautiful backhand shot over the right shoulder of Close.
The Gophers were lacking energy early on, but a couple solid chances led by first-line forwards Matthew Knies and Ben Meyers finally woke the team up late in the first, and Minnesota tied the game early in the second period as McLaughlin got a feed at neutral ice from Matt Staudacher in the defensive zone and came in to snipe one past Grigals. But it took just 13 seconds for Alaska to snatch the lead back; a turnover led to a Brayden Nicholletts goal and a 2-1 lead.
Markus Komuls buried his second of the year following a late second-period odd-man rush, giving the Nanooks a two-goal lead. But the Gophers answered 18 seconds into the third as Chaz Lucius deposited a rebound of a Jackson LaCombe shot, making it 3-2. But despite getting three more power plays in the period, Minnesota couldn’t make them count.
Then McLaughlin was tossed with just under seven minutes left for cross checking an Alaska player, and without their senior forward the rest of the way, the Gophers were unable to get the tying goal.
“Bad penalty at the end,” Motzko said. “We conveniently were good when it was convenient for us tonight. When it wasn’t convenient, we lost a little interest in spurts in the game.
“We deserved to lose the game tonight.”
Meanwhile for Alaska, it was a good end to a week-long road trip that started with a split against the Maine Black Bears and ended with a split against a top-ten team. After leaving Maine, the Nanooks spent the week practicing in the Twin Cities. Now they head home with their first two road wins of the season.
“It’s a great team effort,” Largen said. “You start off with the lead, it’s just a different game.”
Minnesota will host Michigan in a huge Big Ten series next weekend, and the Gophers plan to honor their 2002 and 2003 national championship teams during the series. Meanwhile, Alaska is off next weekend before they head to Vermont at the end of the month.
UAF goal at :59: Filip Fornaa Svensson (5). Assisted by Didrik Henbrant (7) and Brady Risk (12).
MINN goal at 5:43: Blake McLaughlin (7). Assisted by Matt Staudacher (3) and Sammy Walker (8).
UAF goal at 5:56: Brayden Nicholetts (2). Assisted by Matt McKim (1).
UAF goal at 17:59: Markus Komuls (2). Assisted by Riley Murphy (2) and Jordan Muzzillo (2).
MINN goal at :18: Chaz Lucius (8). Assisted by Jackson LaCombe (10) and Matthew Knies (14).
Power plays: UAF 0-2, MINN 0-7.
Shots on goal: UAF 15, MINN 38.