Gophers men’s hockey: Nelson leads U to sweep of Michigan

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			Gophers men’s hockey: Nelson leads U to sweep of Michigan
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Playing with a bit of a makeshift lineup due to sickness and suspension, the Minnesota Gophers weren’t looking for excuses on Friday at Michigan. They were looking for a sweep.

Via a pair of goals by Jaxon Nelson and a strong performance from rookie goalie Owen Bartoszkiewicz, they cleaned up nicely, taking a commanding lead on the Wolverines on the way to a 6-3 win.

“I thought we were a lot more disciplined tonight. We tried to stay out of the (penalty) box and when we got in the box, we killed them off,” Nelson said. “Staying on top of them. (Friday) night after getting punched in the mouth on (Thursday) night at home you’re going to have some pushback so I thought we handled it well and took it to them.”

Rhett Pitlick, Matthew Knies, Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe added goals for the Gophers (10-4-0 overall, 6-2-0 Big Ten) who have won six of their last seven games. Bartoszkiewicz had 35 saves for his third career win.

Michigan got a controversial second-period goal from Dylan Duke, but once again had limited bodies available due to an illness which has decimated their lineup and could not keep up with Minnesota. The Wolverines fell to 9-5-0 overall and 2-4-0 in the conference.

LaCombe was a forward well into his teens until switching to defense full time while playing prep hockey for Shattuck-St. Mary’s. With Logan Cooley suspended by the Big Ten for one game, Cooley took a shift at forward in the first period between Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud, and promptly popped a rising shot over Michigan goalie Erik Portillo’s shoulder for a 1-0 lead.

“Guys stepped up. Our new left winger scores on his first shift, and that was a critical goal because Michigan had a great push right off the bat and then Jackson took care of that with a monster goal,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said.

Pitlick doubled the lead when he and Knies got behind the Wolverines defense for a 2-on-0 breakaway, with Knies pulling Portillo to the left, then passing to the right where Pitlick was open with lots of net to hit. It was the third goal of the weekend by Pitlick.

Nelson scored on a power play and on a delayed penalty with an extra attacker on the ice for his third and fourth goals of the season. Michigan got on the board on a play in front of the Minnesota net that was not initially ruled a goal, but counted after a review despite no clear video of the puck crossing the goal line. The Gophers challenged the play for too many men on the ice, as replays showed Michigan changing lines with possibly as many as seven players on the rink, but the play was allowed to stand.

Duke and Mackie Samoskevich scored in the third for the Wolverines, while Nelson nearly completed the hat trick, assisting on Knies’ goal on a power play. Johnson scored into an empty net from beyond the far blue line for the clincher.

Portillo finished with 28 saves for the Wolverines, who host Harvard next weekend.

Desperation means defensive shift

LaCombe admitted that it had been at least six years since he had played a regular shift as a forward. But with two centers out and the Knies-Jimmy Snuggrud line needing a third forward, Motzko was looking for volunteers.

“Before the game I asked if he’d take a few shifts at forward. He just got a big grin on his face and said yes,” Motzko said, with a grin. “He wanted to play center though. But we moved Knies to center … I can’t say enough about how guys stepped up tonight.”

LaCombe may go down statistically as the top forward in Gopher history, having played one shift there and scoring one goal, but he admitted it wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t know what to do on the wall, to be honest with you, but I only had one shift, so there wasn’t too much to learn,” he said. “They’re a great team but it’s a big building block for our team to be able to figure it out for two games in a row. No matter who we have playing or who they have playing, it’s important.”

On a night when all hands were needed to get a crucial Big Ten win, teammates raved about LaCombe’s willingness to step up, and his impact when he did, even if it was just one shift.

“He was the man for the job, and he was ready to go,” Nelson said.

Extra pucks

Defenseman Matt Staudacher was a healthy scratch on Friday. Center Aaron Huglen was out with an illness. Goalie Justen Close, who missed Thursday’s game due to illness, was in uniform but did not play.

At the first intermission, Michigan honored longtime equipment manager Ian Hume, who died of prostate cancer at age 64 on Oct. 20. He worked with the Wolverines hockey program for 33 years.

The Gophers next stay on the road with their first hockey trip to the desert. They will face Arizona State in a pair of games at the new Mullett Arena in Tempe, Arizona, on Nov. 25-26.

Johnson’s first career goal was also an empty-netter, also versus Michigan.

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