Gophers look toward roster shake-up during exhibition win over Tommies

While the Gophers exhibition Sunday against Division I debutant St. Thomas wasn't an official 5-2 victory, it still helped the Gophers in a few crucial ways heading into the relentless end of the season.

The 1-19 Tommies, who have fallen to opponents by a combined score of 99-31 in their first season at the top level of men's college hockey, put the Gophers on their heels early, taking the lead 11 seconds into the game before leveling the score at 2-2 less than a minute into the second. But the Gophers — who hadn't played since Dec. 4 — found production from some unexpected sources to take control in the second half of the contest.

They'll basically need to do just that on the larger scale of the next two months ahead of the postseason, as they hope to improve on last year's NCAA quarterfinals finish.

Two extra skaters, junior Colin Schmidt and senior Matt Denman, both scored goals Sunday at the sold-out 2,400-seat Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul during the first meeting between the Gophers and the Tommies. Junior Jaxon Nelson also tallied a goal after a bit of a drought during the first part of the season. And backup goaltender Justen Close earned some minutes in starter Jack LaFontaine's place.

Coach Bob Motzko didn't play defenseman Brock Faber nor forwards Matthew Knies and Chaz Lucius, who all recently returned from the cut-short World Junior Championship because of COVID-19 concerns. While they should all be available when the No. 11 Gophers face Michigan State this upcoming weekend, the Gophers might not be full-strength for long.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, the NHL decided to not send players to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. That means Motzko is peering into his crystal ball and preparing for his roster to look pretty different pretty soon.

"It's going to affect us. I just don't know how deep," Motzko said. "But if any of our guys have the opportunity at this stage in [their] life … we're going to open the door for them to go. And I've told USA Hockey our roster is wide open for them. Take what they have to take, and we'll live with it."

BOXSCORE: Gophers 5, St. Thomas 2

Motzko said he expects more clarity this week on which of his players might depart. And depending on whom receives the call, having players like Schmidt, Denman, Nelson and Close build some confidence Sunday could pay off when the team needs depth players to take on more responsibility.

"All of us prepare exactly the same way: Just expect to be needed, and whether that happens or not, doesn't matter," Schmidt said. "… I'd love to see a few of our guys go and represent our country. So that'd be awesome. And absolutely, we'd be ready to step in and help out the team until they come back."

The Gophers (10-8 overall) are in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten, sitting at 6-4 along with Ohio State and Notre Dame. Michigan is just ahead with a 7-5 record. Michigan State is also in the mix at 5-5.

The Gophers have one more exhibition Monday against the U.S. Under-18 team, and there will be a brief nonconference break Jan. 14-15 against Alaska, an early season series rescheduled because of COVID-19 concerns within the Nanooks. But then it's all Big Ten straight through February, including No. 3 Michigan on Jan. 21-22, No. 10 Notre Dame on Jan. 28-29 and No. 17 Ohio State on Feb. 11-12.

"We got off the ice a little bit and got home and just tried to recharge the batteries, and then ever since we've gotten back on campus, we've been skating hard," junior Ben Meyers said. "It's kind of just the same as preparing for the start of the season. I feel like we got our rest, and we're ready to make a good push here."

Motzko said despite what personnel absences the Olympics might present, he feels good about how his team is entering this crucial segment of the year. Everyone is healthy, meaning there's strong competition for playing time at each position. And the young players have all returned from the break with a fresh mind-set of approaching these next games almost like an entirely new season.

"You kind of clean the cobwebs off, and you come back, and you're playing hockey," Motzko said. "I think there's some good things to come for us."