In what was a long time coming for both Kindersley native and former Jr. Klippers star goaltender Justen Close, he made his first Division 1 regular season start on Friday and picked up the win against Alaska. “Closer” as the team calls him was back in the net Saturday, but was unable to improve his record as the Golden Gophers split the weekend series with their new starter in net.
The former winner of the SJHL Top Goaltender Award, and CJHL Top Goaltender Finalist, had only made relief appearances and started in exhibitions for the Golden Gophers during his time with the team thanks to some good competitive talent in front. The now transferred Jared Moe, and recently moved-on Jack LaFontaine were the ones keeping the local goalie out of the starters net, but after some big changes to goalie room over the last year, the net seems to be Close’s for the taking as the historic hockey program looks to end their season strong.
Minnesota’s coaching staff was already anticipating some absences to close out the regular season, as a few Golden Gopher skaters were selected to represent Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics. The departure from the crease, however, was far from expected for Gophers coach Bob Motzko.
When the current season started up for the Gophers, Close was in a similar spot to the one he was in upon his recruitment to the elite hockey program. He was the third string goalie with no wiggle room behind the impressive tandem of Moe and LaFontaine. Prior to the season Moe would transfer to a rival school, after news came out that the accomplished starter LaFontaine would be returning for his final year of eligibility. That vaulted Close into the backup goalie spot, though he knew playing time would be hard to come by with a veteran goaltender coming back into the fold with something to prove.
Fast forward to around 20 games into the season. Everything would change for Close after the team’s starter was signed to an NHL contract, effectively ending his collegiate career when pen hit paper. The Carolina Hurricanes draft pick in LaFontaine would be swayed by the option to go pro as the goalie situation for his NHL club worsened. With no avenue for their starter to return, and his previous understudy moved on to Wisconsin, the Kindersley native Close became the teams best option in net.
Thankfully Close wasn’t fully thrown right into the fire as starter. The team used their then-backup in a few exhibition games to start 2022, an opportunity that was seemingly going to arise regardless. No one in the state of hockey could predict that when the team resumed their regular season against Alaska, the former third string from small town Saskatchewan would be their number one for the rest of the year.
Looking at the games, Close wasn’t tested with much volume in either outing, but he certainly got his first real taste of college hockey.
Close would lead his team onto the ice Friday night, and they would score four goals as he stopped 14/15 shots for his first career win. It must have been nice to get the first win out of the way, as some nerves may have showed through the next night out as he only managed to make 12 saves in a 3-2 loss. One goal came in the first minute, and the other came right after the Gophers tied it, but a stretch pass gone wrong resulted in an Alaska breakaway that would be converted no problem.
Justen Close. Certified Starter 🤝 pic.twitter.com/9BmBrhphd1— Barstool Gophers (@BarstoolUMN) January 15, 2022
Fans and media got behind their new man in the mask early, and will likely get to see what he brings to the table for the rest of this season. The team did scramble to add more options in net, but as the most veteran option, Close will likely be leaned on the rest of the way out as he finally has his opportunity.