The fear, after the Minnesota Gophers were shut down and swept at home by Notre Dame a few weeks ago, was that the Irish had provided a road map on how to counter this high-flying offense that had spent more than a month ranked atop the national polls.
Instead, in the opener of their weekend Big Ten series the Gophers showed, versus a defensive-minded Ohio State team, how to counter that trapping style that was so frustrating just two weeks ago. Namely, score early, possess the puck, shoot when there’s a clear lane to the goalie, and get excellent goaltending on the other end of the rink.
Add all those up, and the Gophers blasted to a 5-1 win over the Buckeyes on Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, improving to 14-3-0 and making it look more and more like the home losses to Notre Dame were the anomaly.
When Gophers coach Bob Motzko said recently that junior forwards Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker are starting to click again, as they had done while paired together as freshmen and sophomores, he was spot on. Both players had a goal and two assists as the Gophers took an early lead and never gave the Buckeyes a chance to get in the game. Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine had 17 saves and appeared headed for his fourth career shutout before a late Buckeyes power-play goal provided the only blemish on his night.
“This was a big game for us to play our game,” Motzko said. “I’m really pleased with that, and now we want to close the weekend out, obviously. But we took care of the first piece of it, and I thought that was a great statement for us.”
Perhaps the only point of concern for Motzko and company was the Gophers’ 0-for-3 night on the power play, but special teams made a difference anyway. On the Buckeyes’ first power play of the night, an Ohio State turnover in the neutral zone sprung a short-handed break by the visitors, with Jackson LaCombe cashing in for his second goal of the season.
“Against good teams, and against the top team in our league right now, we preached that you can’t beat yourself, and probably three of the first goals, we almost gave them those goals,” said Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik. “You can’t help teams like that. So it was disappointing.”
After another Buckeyes turnover, an end-to-end rush by Sampo Ranta made it 2-0, and Walker scored on a seeing-eye shot into the upper corner from a McLaughlin feed to make it a three-goal lead in the second.
“I think that’s just the way we can play,” said Walker, who set up McLaughlin’s goal to make it 4-0 just 77 seconds into the final period. “We haven’t had that in the first half of the year, so it’s nice that we’ve kind of been rolling.”
The Buckeyes (5-11-1) got their only goal on a late power play, which had Motzko fuming, mostly at his own team for taking a penalty and opening the door for the opponent to ruin his goalie’s opportunity for a shutout. Buckeyes starter Tommy Nappier stopped 24 of the 29 shots he faced and was lifted after the Gophers’ fifth goal. Evan Moyse, a little-used senior, came on in relief.
They tried to play a physical game early, hitting the Gophers in the game’s first several shifts. It backfired.
“They were hitting all over the place and once you’re hitting guys, you kind of take yourself out of the play a bit,” said McLaughlin, who was held scoreless in the Gophers’ first nine games and now has scored eight times in the past eight games. “We kind of lived and learned there, and by about 10 minutes into the game we figured out how to beat it.”
The Gophers got defenseman Matt Staudacher back in the lineup after he had missed the previous four games due to injury, and felt his return.
“He gives us a physical presence and he battled,” Motzko said. “There were a handful of times early in the game, especially in the first two periods, where he was able to stomp some things out in the d-zone before anything could get going, and we had the puck and away we went. We need that physical presence.”
The series concludes on Saturday afternoon with a 4 p.m. CT start.