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Gophers hockey's 'old man' is back in a zone again for stretch run

Justen Close is known for his calm demeanor in the net, his ability to remain focused under duress and his consistency as the starting goalie for the Gophers for the past 2½ seasons. The 25-year-old is the team's elder statesman, a graduate student whose no-frills approach on and off the ice garners comparisons to a sage senior citizen.

"We call him the old man," defenseman and good friend Carl Fish said. "He's one of those guys who likes to drink his coffee at sunrise in the morning, read the newspaper, maybe."

Added Brennan Poderzay, the Gophers goaltending coach: "It's a lot like having a conversation with your grandfather. There's times that I feel immature when I leave the crease and get educated by him."

Don't look now, but grandpa's on a heater.

As the Gophers hit the home stretch of the regular season, Close has stepped up his game. He's on a 6-1-1 roll and is coming off a series at Wisconsin in which he stopped 62 of 64 shots as Minnesota beat the Badgers 2-1 in overtime before settling for a 1-1 tie. He was named Big Ten first star of the week and will put his hot streak to the test against Penn State on Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

"We're playing our best hockey of the year right now," said Close, who has a 15-7-5 record, 2.41 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this season. "We've just continued to improve. I thought Saturday night in Wisconsin was our best game of the year. … We're just looking to build on that."

At 5-10 and 180 pounds, the Kindersley, Saskatchewan native is by no means a monster in the net at a time where larger goalies are becoming more prevalent. He relies on his positioning, though he showed an ability to scramble when needed against Wisconsin, especially in his 40-save performance on Friday.

"We're comfortable in him with any situation," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, "and he's putting a good push on right now."

His time of the year

This isn't the first time Close has keyed a second-half run for the Gophers. In the 2021-22 season, he was thrust into the starting lineup in January when Jack LaFontaine abruptly signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Close finished with an eight-game winning streak as the Gophers won the Big Ten regular-season title.

He followed with an overtime win over defending national champion Massachusetts in the first round of the NCAA regionals, and then posted a 24-save shutout of Western Michigan in the regional final, sending the Gophers to their first Frozen Four since 2014.

"It is the craziest story in my coaching career," said Motzko, who had played Close in only four games in relief action during the previous two seasons. "What a dumb coach I was for not putting him in before I did. He's just a good goalie. And he's just good every day."

Last year, Close was 11-4-1 from Jan. 1 through the Big Ten tournament, then led the Gophers to the NCAA championship game with wins over Canisius (9-2), St. Cloud State (4-1) and Boston University (6-2). Minnesota lost 3-2 in overtime to Quinnipiac in the national title game, and that result continues to fuel Close.

"Even through his junior pedigree, he never shied from the spotlight," Poderzay said. "I remember how calm he was even in that national championship game last year."

Finding his groove

Close and the Gophers got off to an up-and-down start, going 9-5-4 through the first half of the season. Close gave up three or more goals in nine of those games, a sign of growing pains for a team that lost five players who now are skating regular shifts in the NHL.

"We had to find ways to close out games, and we hadn't necessarily been successful in that," Close said. "It was just part of the learning curve."

The improvement is clear as Close has allowed only one goal in each of his past three games. His aim is to keep building on that success, all the way to April.

"We're trying to make another run at it," Close said. "… You want to enjoy every day here at the rink, but at the same time, you gotta stay focused on your team goals."