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Gophers notebook: Motzko, Robson & Walker finalists for Big Ten awards

Minnesota Gophers junior goalie Mat Robson, who has started 30 of the team's 37 games this season, is a finalist for Big Ten Goaltender of the Year. (Jason Wachter / The Rink Live)1 / 4
Former Gophers standout Natalie Darwitz is in her fourth season as head coach for the women's hockey program at Hamline University in St. Paul and has the Pipers back in the NCAA semifinals. (Jo Baecker / Hamline University)2 / 4
Gophers freshman forward Sammy Walker has four goals in and six assists in his first 15 collegiate games. Jim Rosvold3 / 4
Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes.4 / 4

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two Minnesota Gophers playing their first full seasons of college hockey, and a coach spending his first season running this program, have made positive impressions with the voters for the Big Ten’s annual awards.

This week it was announced that Gophers first-year coach Bob Motzko is a finalist for the league’s coach of the year award, while freshman forward Sammy Walker is a finalist for the honor given to the league’s top rookie and junior goalie Mat Robson is in the running for the league’s top netminder.

Motzko has led the Gophers to an 18-15-4 mark and a third-place finish in his first season. During his 18 seasons at St. Cloud State, Motzko was named coach of the year in the WCHA twice and in the NCHC twice.

Walker, who won the Mr. Hockey award last season at Edina High School, led Big Ten freshmen with 25 points this season. While centering the team’s dynamic all-freshman line with Nathan Burke and Blake McLaughlin, Walker has missed one game due to injury and has at least a point in 15 of the team’s 18 two-game series.

“He stopped playing like a freshman on about October 13,” Motzko said. “He plays with electricity and lives life with electricity...Sammy’s been outstanding.”

Robson is the Big Ten leader in saves and is in the top three in save percentage and wins. Starting 30 of the team’s 37 games so far, Robson has allowed two goals or fewer while winning his last four starts. It’s the first full season of college hockey for the junior. He made his Gophers debut halfway through last season due to a NCAA eligibility reduction.

“Obviously Robbie is an exceptional goalie and I think the best in the country,” said Gophers forward Brannon McManus.

The award winners will be announced on Tuesday, March 19, in advance of the Big Ten championship game.

Elsewhere, early departures begin

You go to college to find a job, right? With the season over for three (Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin) of the Big Ten’s seven teams, a few of their standouts have begun to find jobs, even if they’ve got college eligibility remaining.

It’s not clear whether Michigan star defenseman Quinn Hughes headed east to Ann Arbor or west to Vancouver immediately after the Wolverines’ season ended last Saturday night in Minneapolis. In any case, less than 24 hours after his sophomore season concluded, Hughes’ college career came to a close as well. He inked an entry-level contract with the Vancouver Canucks, who had picked him seventh overall in the 2018 NHL Draft.

On Friday, in Michigan’s series-opening overtime loss to the Gophers, Hughes blocked a shot with his right foot and missed the end of the game. He left the arena on crutches Friday night but was able to play on Saturday. The Canucks have indicated that his NHL debut may be delayed while they wait for his foot to fully heal.

Michigan State finished in the conference’s cellar, but junior forward Taro Hirose led the Big Ten offensively with 50 points, despite the Spartans getting shut out twice at Notre Dame last weekend. Tuesday, Hirose chose to stay in Michigan, but will forgo his final season in East Lansing after signing an entry-level deal with the Detroit Red Wings.

Among the Gophers underclassmen, the players most likely to consider early departures at season’s end are Robson, who has completed his degree and is a free agent, and junior forward Rem Pitlick, who was a third round pick by the Nashville Predators in the 2016 draft.

Seven Gopher women honored by WCHA

It’s the 20th anniversary season of women’s hockey in the WCHA, and with seven NCAA titles in that span, it wasn’t totally surprising that more than one-third of the 20 players named to the WCHA’s 20th anniversary team were former Gophers.

When the squad was announced last weekend, former Gophers Hannah Brandt (2012-16), Dani Cameranesi (2013-17), Natalie Darwitz (2002-05), Amanda Kessel (2010-16), Gigi Marvin (2005-09), Noora Räty (2009-13), and Krissy Wendell (2002-05) were on the roster.

Jocelyne Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux, who both spent one season with the Gophers, were named to the team representing North Dakota’s now-defunct program. Darwitz, who is in her fourth season as the head coach for the Hamline University women’s team, has the Pipers back in the NCAA Division III national semifinals where they will face cross-town rival St. Thomas on Friday.