Gophers prepping for fans' derision and Griffins' collision as Fargo regional opener approaches
Making just their second-ever NCAA playoff appearance, the Canisius Golden Griffins face top-ranked Minnesota with an attitude and a game designed to give their well-rested opponent fits.
FARGO – Don’t you dare feel any sympathy for Trevor Large and his Canisius squad heading into their NCAA matchup with top-ranked Minnesota on Thursday at Scheels Arena.
Sure, the Golden Griffins had to fly halfway around the country to face a loaded Gophers team that has been atop the national polls (and the all-important PairWise rankings) much of the season. Still, as Large prepared to coach in his first NCAA tournament game, he and his players sounded like men who relished the chance to play giant-killer.
Asked how they planned to compete against a powerful Minnesota team, Griffins goalie Jacob Barczewski had a frank response.
“We’re coming here not just to compete, we’re coming here to win,” said Barczewski, who has started 31 games this season, posting a .925 saves percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average.
All Large has to do is look back at other teams from his conference, Atlantic Hockey, that have knocked off the NCAA’s top-seeded team (Air Force in 2018, AIC in 2019) or made a surprise run to the Frozen Four (RIT in 2010) and he feels less like an underdog.
“I honestly struggle with the upset category, and I have to tip a cap to our conference. How many times is an Atlantic Hockey team going to have that upset at the beginning?” Large asked, rhetorically. “We know we’re going to play a No. 1 seed but you don’t have to look back too far to see when those things have happened. Our goal is going to be that next team that wears that Atlantic Hockey flag.”
That flag won’t need to be waved too highly on Thursday for the Griffs to hear cheers, their opponents predict. Even though scores of Minnesota fans will be in the building, Gophers coach Bob Motzko was quick to remind the media that neighborhood rival North Dakota is the regional host, meaning a good amount of their fans in attendance. And among programs in the State of Hockey, the Gophers are never the underdog, especially among fans of the Mavericks and Huskies, who will also be there in big numbers.
“One big difference from Loveland and Worcester – we’re the most hated team here,” Bob Motzko said, referencing the rinks where Minnesota played in the 2021 and 2022 regionals. “Let’s just get right to it. If any of the green fans show up, you know who they’re against, and the two other Minnesota teams. There’s a big difference this week. We’re the most hated team in the state.”
Canisius had five wins at the holiday break and was sitting in eighth place in their 10-team conference, before a 15-7-1 run in the second half wins got them into the top four in Atlantic Hockey, and a pair of playoff series wins got them to the conference title game, where they blanked Holy Cross 3-0 to get to the NCAAs.
Large said that game illustrates two things the Griffins do exceedingly well: stop pucks, and protect leads.
“When we get up on a team, our guys will close you out. That’s a big recipe for success for anybody,” Large said. “They’re very attentive, they like details, they know the things we control and our guys get after it. It’s been a fun group to coach.”
As for the challenge Minnesota presents, and especially the Gophers’ high-scoring top line of Matthew Knies, Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud, the Griffins said the key will be to play the physical brand of hockey that has gotten them this far. Minnesota is back to something as close to fully healthy as a team can be this late in a season, and perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams, at least this month, has been their workload.
Canisius will be playing its eighth game in the month of March on Thursday evening. For the Gophers, it will be their third, and their first game outside of Minneapolis since Feb. 18.
“We’re excited to get on the road. We’ve been home for a month,” Motzko said. “We get on the bus, leave the snow and come to snow. But it’s been a good trip for us so far.”
In 2015, Motzko brought his St. Cloud State club to Fargo for the regional, winning a wild overtime game versus Michigan Tech, then falling to the host Fighting Hawks in the final. He said he has been around the game long enough to know that his team’s No. 1 overall seeding and their opponents 16 seed mean very little once the puck drops.
“Do you know the difference between the six and the seven (seeds) was like .0017, like, OK, it doesn’t matter,” Motzko said. “It’s how you’re playing. The depth of college hockey, we’ve seen it for the last couple decades now and the last decade for sure … I’ve been a four (seed) that’s beat a one, and I’ve been a one that’s gotten beat by a four.”
Whether the Gophers win or lose, by Friday morning Motzko will have been one of those two things once again.