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Gophers using off-ice time to prepare for late-season push

Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko gives his players instructions during a time out against Ferris State in the first period of an NCAA Men’s Hockey game at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis on Saturday Dec. 29, 2018. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — In addition to the bevy of physical challenges that Minnesota Gophers strength and conditioning coach Cal Dietz administers to the hockey team, the concept of power napping has been a part of the regimen since the middle of February.

With the team in the thick of preparations for the Big Ten playoffs, and the number of games — as well as bumps and bruises — piling up, the Gophers are very serious about using time away from the rink to their advantage.

“Cal always talks about how rest is a weapon,” Gophers co-captain Tyler Sheehy said this week. “You’ve got to be sleeping and eating right and when you get the day off you can’t be slacking off. You’ve got to come in and get some cardio in there and stay on top of it, and make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”

Starting a few weeks ago, Gophers coach Bob Motzko started cancelling formal practice on Tuesdays. Players are welcome to come to the rink, work out, eat and even skate if they prefer, but it’s officially a day of rest. It may be coincidental, but the Gophers have won three of four, including a road sweep at Big Ten champion Ohio State, since the off days began.

“It’s been great to get a Tuesday off and come back feeling great on Wednesday,” Sheehy said, noting that he sleeps in on Tuesday, comes to the rink for a 15-minute workout on the stationary bike and takes the rest of the day to relax.

Counting exhibitions, Friday’s home game with Arizona State will be the Gophers’ 36th of the season, and they will play a minimum of 39. For first-year Gophers who were in high school or juniors last season, this may be the most daunting hockey workload they’ve faced, so the time off is critical.

“The second half of the season you’re always a little bit more tired. Games are more intense, and guys are putting everything on the line, blocking shots, so there are always more bruises,” said freshman forward Nathan Burke.

“Every day we get off is a day that will help us over the weekend and lead to better play.”

On Wednesday the team practiced for 52 minutes, which the coach said was two minutes longer than he had planned, but he thinks the rest is paying off as the most critical part of the schedule approaches.

“Our guys right now don’t appear tired or worn down, and I’ve had teams at the end (of the season) that need a break,” Motzko said. “I think we’ve got a good feel about us.”

First-time matchup

While the Gophers will be facing Arizona State for the first time in program history, there is some experience with the Sun Devils on their bench, almost. Friday’s game will actually be the fourth time ASU coach Greg Powers has faced one of Motzko’s teams, but he’s never actually coached head-to-head versus Motzko.

St. Cloud State swept a home series with the Devils on Jan. 1-2, 2016, and the Huskies won a 4-2 neutral site meeting with ASU a year later in Prescott, Ariz., in the third place game of the Desert Hockey Classic. In both cases, Motzko was away from the Huskies, coaching Team USA in the World Junior Championship.

He did however witness the Sun Devils’ first-ever Division I win on Oct. 10, 2015. The Huskies were in Anchorage, Alaska, for a tournament and watched ASU beat Alaska Fairbanks 2-1.

The Gophers have come out on top the last four times they’ve faced a program for the first time, including wins over Penn State and Robert Morris in 2014, a shutout of Canisius in 2012 and a blowout of Sacred Heart in 2011.