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Stoic sniper: Pitlick's all-business style leads Gophers into Notre Dame showdown

Junior forward Rem Pitlick (left) leads the Minnesota Gophers with 45 points in 37 games this season, and has recorded at least a point in 18 of their last 19 games. (Brad Rempel / University of Minnesota Athletics)1 / 2
Gophers forward Rem Pitlick (15) battles Ohio State captain Mason Jobst for a loose puck behind the net during their game last month at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Ric Kruszynski / Ohio State University Athletics)2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- Watch the grainy video of those all-but-unbeatable Soviet Union hockey teams from the 1970s and you’ll notice two things beyond the "CCCP" on the front of their red jerseys: 1) they rarely give up possession of the puck, and 2) you rarely see them smile or display any emotion, even when winning.

Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko is a proud Polish-American and his top forward Rem Pitlick comes primarily from German roots. But both men are seemingly taking a page out of the Russian playbook as the team charges into their Big Ten playoff semifinal game versus the Irish at Notre Dame on Saturday, March 16.

About a month ago, the Gophers (18-15-3) made a noted adjustment to a more conservative puck possession style of defensive hockey, designed to reduce turnovers and therefore allow fewer scoring opportunities for their opponents. They’ve gone 7-1-0 since then, and have allowed more than 40 shots on goal once.

When they control the puck, the Gophers and their foes know that when Pitlick is in possession, something exciting often happens. With at least a point in 18 of the Gophers’ last 19 games, Pitlick has been making fans smile and cheer all season, even if his style on and off the ice is much more stoic.

“He has a real business approach. I did seem him smile recently. I don’t know what happened, but he did have a smile on his face,” Motzko joked this week. “That’s just Rem. He’s just very serious and methodical, and his game is coming together in all areas right now. We’re smiling for him, because he’s playing great.”

In Friday's overtime win over Michigan, with the Gophers on a power play, Pitlick held the puck and made the Wolverines chase him, finally cruising behind the net and feeding the puck to Brannon McManus at the top of the crease for a quick wrist shot to win the game. On Saturday, with a chance to eliminate the Wolverines, Pitlick methodically scored his team’s third and fourth goals to move them on to the next round.

“He’s a special player and he’s obviously proven it this year, and all the years since he’s been here,” McManus said. “He’s at the top of his game and he’s going up. You’ve just got to be ready when he has the puck because he’ll find you.”

And when Notre Dame (20-13-3) has the puck, the defense-first Irish learned this season that the clogging style the Gophers can employ makes getting to the net a great challenge. Minnesota was 3-1 against Notre Dame this season, including a pair of road wins in January, but the Gophers’ lone loss in the last eight games was a 3-2 defeat in Minneapolis at the hands of the Irish.

“Minnesota’s playing a much more strict defensive style now than they have in the past. Trying to get pucks through, they block a lot of shots, and trying to get through the neutral zone, they play that 1-4 system in the neutral zone,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, who knows a thing or two about defense. His team blanked Michigan State 1-0 and 2-0 last weekend to advance. “That’s always given us problems. We try to break it as much as possible, but whether it was St. Cloud or Minnesota Duluth or Minnesota now, they all play that neutral zone system, and it’s challenging to get through with possession.”

After three straight series at home and all the talk about poor attendance in Minneapolis last weekend, the Gophers also said there’s an excitement to be going on the road, to a place where they’ve had success this season. As for the prospect of going into a rink festooned with shamrocks and facing a team named the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, for at least one Gopher there are no concerns.

“They call me Irish too,” McManus said with a grin. “I’m a McManus. We’re good there.”

Saturday’s game starts at 6 p.m. CT and will be televised by Big Ten Network.