Gophers men's hockey team hits the road for postseason — comfortably

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Randy Johnson, Star Tribune
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No offense to their 10,000-seat rink with the Olympic-sized ice sheet, but the Gophers have found life away from Dinkytown to their liking in this sports year turned topsy-turvy because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like road.

For the Gophers, that resumes Sunday afternoon in South Bend, Ind., where they'll face Michigan State in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.

"It's weird; it's been harder at home," said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, whose fourth-ranked team is 9-1 away from Minnesota but just 11-5 at Mariucci, where only 150 fans were allowed. " … I think we like the road. You get on an airplane, you travel and you're in a hotel. It feels normal to these athletes who have done that.

"At home, you come out of the tunnel and you want your fans there," he added. "We keep looking for them, and they're not showing up. … We've been good on the road and we're excited to get on the road. We're on it the rest of the year, and away we go."

Senior forward Scott Reedy has noticed the difference. Among the Gophers' home losses were sweeps at the hands of Notre Dame and Wisconsin, plus last Friday's 5-2 setback to Michigan, a result that cost Minnesota a chance to win the Big Ten regular-season title.

"That's a good theory, actually," Reedy said. "It feels like something's missing when you play at home with no crowd, no band. It's definitely a different atmosphere and takes away from the home-ice advantage. It's felt a lot easier to get going on the road."

Whatever has worked on the road, Motzko wants to replicate it in the Big Ten tournament, which runs through Tuesday. The second-seeded Gophers face last-place Michigan State, with the winner advancing to Monday's semifinal against the Michigan-Ohio State winner. The Gophers presumably are safely in the NCAA tournament and would bolster their case to be one of the four No. 1 regional seeds if they win the conference tournament. The single-elimination format leaves no margin for error, and that starts against a Spartans team that has lost six consecutive games.

"They're looking for hope," Motzko said, "and if you give them hope and you're not ready and make some mistakes, they'll play off that hope. Our league is not very forgiving."

The Gophers bring a talented and experienced team to the Big Ten tournament, and even freshmen like defensemen Brock Faber and Mike Koster aren't typical first-year players.

"This is the best time of year," said Faber, who helped the United States win the gold medal in the World Junior Championship and is a finalist for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. "Growing up as a kid in Minnesota, this was state tournament time. This was always fun. I wouldn't say nerves, but I'd say excitement in being in this spot with this team and hopefully going all the way."

Said Motzko, "We're in pretty good hands with both of those guys. They're battle-tested."

A year ago, the Gophers advanced to a Big Ten semifinal matchup at Penn State, only to have it canceled. They're on a 31-12-2 run that began when they won the Mariucci Classic midway through the 2019-20 season.

"We picked up right where we left off last year," Motzko said. "We've had a couple hiccups at home, and here we are right back where we were last year and ready to play. … Let's go find out what we've got under the hood. Let's be excited to go play right now."

Enthusiasm won't be an issue, Faber believes.

"We're kind of licking our chops. This is when it really gets important," he said. "The biggest thing is proving to our fans and the guys in that locker room that this program is really turning around and has turned around. We're going to keep coming, and it starts Sunday."