With two SJHL Goaltender of the Year titles in his back pocket, fans of the Kindersley Jr Klippers and the SJHL alike know how clutch Kindersley native and goaltender Justen Close's game is. For University of Minnesota Golden Gophers fans though, the third year goaltender was unproven when he took over the crease as the Gophers starter after Jack LaFontaine announced he was going pro.
Close put those worries to rest after that, posting a record of 11-3-2, a conference best 93.3% save percentage and goals against average of 1.73, and capped off the season last weekend with two straight shutouts at home 5-0 and 8-0 over rival University of Wisconsin Badgers to finish the Gophers' season as the number one ranked team heading into the Big 10 Conference Championships. The goaltender joined the SJ at Noon show on the SJHL's Facebook page earlier this week to talk about his experience this past year, and the two wins on the weekend were special.
"It was a fun weekend for sure. We knew there was a regular season championship on the line going in, we didn't know exactly how it shape out, but we knew we needed to sweep if we wanted to give ourselves a good chance. We're just playing really good team hockey right now, I mean up and down the lineup we've had guys chipping in."
With Close in net, the Gophers have won their last eight games in a row to go undefeated through the month of February and earn a bye in the first round of the Big 10 Championships as the regular season leaders. While the trust of the fans hasn't always been there and things are certainly different as the team's starter, Close has been able to avoid to off ice distractions and focus himself in between the pipes.
"I don't really focus on things like that too much. I try and keep to myself as much as I can and as far as success goes, I think it's just like I said, we've been playing so well as a team lately we've really come together since the Christmas break and I don't think we're entirely thrilled with our first half of the season and I think we all came in with the mindset of just wanting to string some wins together going forward and we've been able to do that."
Although he's happy to be the starter now, Close credits a lot of the success that he's had this season to the goaltender standing in the crease before him, last year's Big 10 Goaltender of the Year Jack LaFontaine. Halfway through the season, LaFontaine made his departure to the AHL with the Chicago Wolves, but before he left Close believes that being able to practice and learn from LaFontaine has helped him to be ready this season along with Close's own aspirations of heading to the pros himself.
"I was definitely definitely very happy for him, very excited for him. He was a a fantastic teammate to have for the two and a half years that we were together and I was definitely able to learn a lot from him. He was a very hard working guy and I think when you have guys like that on your team, it motivates other people, including myself, to show up to the rink and give that same effort. I'm trying to improve and get better every day and I think it lifts a team that way."
The biggest adjustment for Close has been the amount of games his team plays. His Golden Gophers only play twice a weekend, double headers on Fridays and Saturdays. Staying consistent in that time can be difficult, but for Close it's all about mindset.
"Especially when you play a junior schedule where there's 50 some games in a year and you're probably playing 40 of them. In a college schedule there's only 30, you would be lucky to get into the 40s so and it was definitely a little bit different to not to not have that same on ice time, but like I said, there's always learning to do, and you're part of something that's bigger than yourself and I think when you have that perspective and you put the team first and you show up and you work every day, you just let things fall where they will."
The Golden Gophers are now waiting to find out who their opponent will be in the semi finals of the Big 10 Championships on March 12, and if all goes well they'll be heading to the NCAA Frozen Four Championships where they'll look to win their sixth championshop title and first since 2003.