Zulgad: Growing pains: Gophers are swept by North Dakota as lessons continue for Bob Motzko’s young team

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers were in the midst of an embarrassing 9-3 loss to third-ranked North Dakota on Thursday night at Mariucci Arena, when a few disgruntled fans announced via Twitter that they had seen enough of Bob Motzko behind the Minnesota bench.

Maybe their Thanksgiving turkey had them in a foul mood. Maybe the sides that ended up on the Thanksgiving table weren’t that good. Or maybe they had overindulged in adult beverages before hitting the send button. The problem is that even those of us who enjoy calling for jobs couldn’t endorse this idea.

Motzko is a veteran coach, having spent 13 seasons leading St. Cloud State, but is only 16 games into his second season as the Gophers’ coach. On Friday night, he was working with a team that had eight freshmen or sophomores among its 12 forwards, four freshmen or sophomores among its six defensemen and started freshmen Jared Moe in goal.

The good news was the Gophers looked far sharper than the team that got steamrolled by North Dakota on Thursday as it used three goalies (yes, three) and gave up the most goals it has surrendered at Mariucci Arena. Defenseman Tyler Nanne, one of two seniors who played for Minnesota on Friday, opened the scoring only 2 minutes, 41 seconds into the first period but the Fighting Hawks responded with the next three goals and escaped with a 3-2 victory for the series sweep. Moe made several outstanding saves in the third to keep it a one-goal game.

“I hate lessons, but we learned one,” said Motzko, who is sitting on 299 career victories. “They’re not fun when you have something happen like it did (Thursday) night. I’ll give our guys credit. They responded tonight. To a man, we came with an effort tonight to play a hockey game against a really good hockey team. Unfortunately, we made a couple mistakes and it cost us in a big game. But we battled.”

Motzko started five freshmen in front of his freshman goalie on Friday in order to show confidence in his younger players because he has no choice but to show that type of belief. The Gophers field the youngest team in college hockey (average age of 20 years, 240 days), according to College Hockey Inc. Nineteen of the team’s 27 players are either in their first or second seasons.

After winning and gaining a tie against Wisconsin at Mariucci last week, the Gophers (5-8-3) got an idea of how they stack up when playing college hockey’s elite. North Dakota’s style in this series was remindful of watching the Chicago Blackhawks play the Wild a few years back.

When the Blackhawks wanted to take control of games they had the skill to do it and when they wanted to overwhelm the Wild with that skill and superior transition game they had the ability to flip that switch. Anything less than full effort from the Wild, or in this case the Gophers, meant they were doomed and on Thursday it was clear Minnesota did not give full effort.

That was different on Friday as the Gophers held on until the end after getting a power-play goal from freshman center Ben Meyers at 6:27 to pull Minnesota within one.

The feeling among some is that the Gophers should never look like they did Thursday against North Dakota (12-1-2) — once one of their fierce rivals in the old WCHA — and some wanted to put blame on Motzko.

But for reasons that have been well documented in recent years, Gophers hockey is far different than it once was and anyone who doesn’t accept that simply isn’t willing to accept reality. Motzko’s record dropped to 23-24-7 at Minnesota with Friday’s loss and while his team can compete with teams such as the Badgers, the Gophers now have been swept by eighth-ranked Minnesota Duluth, seventh-ranked Penn State and North Dakota and outscored 33-12 in those six games. This isn’t excusing these performances, but this isn’t going to be turned around this season.

“You don’t ever want to get beat like we did (Thursday),” Motzko said. “But it has happened to us a couple of times. Three times now after we’ve had really good weekends we’ve laid an egg (in the opening game of a series). We’re trying to put our finger on that and then also we’ve had Duluth, Penn State, North Dakota, coming off really good weekends and we weren’t a match (in the first game). But we have responded every time. For a young hockey team, we’ve responded and that’s one thing I’ll give our team some credit for tonight.”

While the Gophers were swept, there was a reminder of what Mariucci Arena can be like when there’s excitement in the building. The arena wasn’t full on Friday and rarely is these days, but despite plenty of empty seats in the Minnesota student section there was an atmosphere in the building that so often is lacking.

This was in large part due to the fact that thousands of North Dakota fans packed the building, dressed in their green Sioux jerseys and exchanging chants with Minnesota fans. It’s pretty obvious these fans haven’t embraced the Fighting Hawks nickname and have no intention of doing so. What they do embrace is one of the better college hockey teams in the country and they often made the Gophers’ home arena feel like their own.

“It was a great crowd,” Motzko said. “We gave our people something to cheer about tonight and quieted the green team down. You had a good old fashioned hockey game tonight. … Those green people they travel a lot. Well, none of them live in Grand Forks, they all live here.”

Motzko was laughing as he threw the jab at North Dakota fans, but he clearly has respect for how UND coach Brad Berry has built a veteran roster that dressed six seniors and four juniors and has players with more experience.

“You look at some of the guys over on (the North Dakota) roster, you look at some of the guys against Penn State we saw,” Motzko said, “it is just a trend in college hockey right now that there are a handful of programs that haven’t caught up. We are one that have to try to catch up to that. You guys can write about it and do the math, I didn’t plan to be the youngest team this year. We are and I said that we are going to get older and we are going to do everything in our power to get older. Then there is also experience, too. You look down the roster at some of their guys, they are playing their 100th game, 70th game, 80th game. Most of our roster is sitting at 30 and under, or 36 and under, 40 and under now. We’re gaining experience.”

In the meantime, there are certain to be some painful lessons that will try the patience of Gophers fans.