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Will talent win out in Frozen Four for Gophers?

04/04/2023, 11:15pm CDT
By Bryan Zollman, Let's Play Hockey

Logan Cooley is a Hobey Baker finalist along with lineman Matthew Knies. They are two-thirds of the top line in college hockey along with Jimmy Snuggerud. PHOTO BY KELLY HAGENSON

Matthew Knies has a good shot at winning the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.

Knies is a very good hockey player, destined to be a top-6 forward in the NHL. But he isn’t even the best player on his line, and may very well be only the third best player on his team.

Yes, the Gophers are that talented.

While the NCAA butchered the bracket by placing three Minnesota teams in the same region, and forcing a No 1.  vs. No. 6 match-up in the second round, at least hockey pollsters got it right when they ranked the Gophers the top team in the country.

Because they are that good.

This was evident in their first two victories in the NCAA tournament. After a slow start against No. 16-seed Canisius, the Gophers flipped a switch and all of a sudden looked like the 1985 Edmonton Oilers. They followed up with a 4-1 win over No. 6 St. Cloud State despite taking several avoidable penalties.

The Huskies inability to create offense, even on those power plays, was not due to a subpar power play unit (they are fifth in the country), but more so because of the Gophers relentless defensive zone play. This is the result of coaching and skill. It was clear that Bob Motzko’s game plan against the Huskies was not to get into a wheeling-and-dealing up-and-down the ice contest. Instead the Gophers let the Huskies control the puck in their zone, they just didn’t let them get anywhere close to the net. Most shots came from the perimeter and the puck had to find its way through one, two and sometimes three bodies before it got to Justen Close.

Minnesota’s defensive corps is the best in the country, and nobody is even close. Brock Faber is destined to jump right into the mix with the Minnesota Wild after the Frozen Four. Enjoy watching him play college hockey while you can, because he is ready to be a top six defenseman in the National Hockey League, perhaps a top four. He does everything well, from breaking out pucks to blocking them to being a playmaker on the other end. He makes smart plays ALL. THE. TIME.

Jackson LaCombe, a second-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks, is also likely to make a seamless transition to the NHL and has been a stalwart on the blueline for a Gophers squad who gets praised for being the top-scoring team in the nation, but not enough for their blueline dominance.

Mike Koster and Ryan Johnson, also both drafted in the NHL, give Minnesota four excellent defenseman who are strong in all facets of the game, and a testament to the new-era defenseman who is measured more on skating and puck skills than size.

But the biggest reason they are the top scoring team is because they have the best line in college hockey, perhaps the best line college hockey has seen in some time.

For those old enough to remember the “Hrkac Circus” of North Dakota back in the late 1980s, or the North Dakota trio of Boeser-Schmaltz-Caggiula in 2016, the line of Knies-Cooley-Snuggerud brings similar excitement every time they touch the ice.  Something special is bound to happen, and even if it doesn’t it’s fun watching them try.

The ringleader is Cooley, a player who consistently is a step ahead of everyone else on the ice, and it’s not because of McDavid-like speed. He has the rare ability of being where the puck ends up because he always knows where the puck should be. He is a master craftsman when it comes to puck handling and passing, but also is lethally effective when a scoring opportunity arises. His body control, especially with the puck on his stick, allows him to create space even in small, crowded areas. When I say Knies isn’t even the best player on his line, it’s because Coooley is that good. How good?

He is the best player in college hockey this year, despite what Michigan fans might think. Adam Fantilli will go No. 2 in the draft, as he should, and is a fantastic player. But Cooley has that extra component to his game, an elusiveness you can’t teach, and he brings an element of surprise every time the puck touches his tape. He’s like watching the best magicians or comedians, fans always hanging on what he is going to do next. He has more “wow” to his game than anyone in the college ranks.

Being flanked by Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud doesn’t hurt. Snuggerud has excelled at every level he has played and him and Cooley bring back memories of Hrkac and Joyce, Hull and Oates, and maybe even a little Kurri and Gretzky. They look like they have been playing together since knee-hockey games as toddlers. Knies fills the role of a power forward with skill, making necessary contact and flushing pucks out of corners. This makes them the toughest threesome to defend.

Former Gopher great Pat Micheletti agrees, calling Cooley the best forward in college hockey. The likely reason he mentioned “forward” is because saying Cooley is the overall best would not do justice to Faber, who is not a top 10 Hobey finalists most likely because of the position he plays and the team he is on.

That is how good these Gophers are. With 14 players drafted by an NHL team, the talent and skill is there. We haven’t even mentioned the likes of Aaron Huglen, Rhett Pitlick, Bryce Brodzinski, Brody Lamb, Mason Nevers and Jaxon Nelson.

But there have been supremely talented teams in college hockey in the past that haven’t sniffed a Frozen Four much less a title.

Several factors play into this. First and foremost, most of your talented future NHL players don’t play college hockey past age 20 or 21 and instead are lured to the NHL with a dangling entry-level contract. Many of these talented players are focused on just that, getting to the next level and fulfilling their dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Winning a national championship may be a nice stocking stuffer, but there are bigger and more expensive things under the tree.

That is why teams like Minnesota-Duluth in 2018 and 2019, full of very good but maybe not great players who are 22 and 23 years old, focus on wining the natty. It's why Minnesota State has been successful. These players know in five years they will be working a full-time job and skating Wednesday nights in a competitive beer league. A national championship is their last chance at glory. These players may be less talented, but are more experienced, more physically mature, and have a bigger appetite and passion about college hockey’s top prize.

But this Gophers team seems different. They seem like a tight-knit squad who has a good mix of talent and character. A team who cares and is focused from face off to face off, rush to rush. Motzko has done a terrific job in building a culture that values team over individual. You can see it on the ice, after a goal, after a win.

It’s been 20 years since the Gophers hoisted the national championship trophy. They have a small window of opportunity this weekend with this special group to prove to college hockey fans that the most talented team in college hockey can also finish as the best team in college hockey.

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Tag(s): State Of Hockey