The Gophers righted the ship on Saturday by defeating the hometown Wisconsin Badgers 5-2. The game was won mostly on the back of junior goaltender Alex Kangas, who made 45 stops en route to earning a much needed two points.
Conspicuously absent from the starting lineup was junior forward Mike Hoeffel. Hoeffel, who had an allergic reaction prior to the game, sat out. The Gophers had already lost scoring threat Jay Barriball to knee surgery, so it was interesting to see how they would do with not one but two of their top scorers out of the lineup.
Even with a depleted roster, the game started in the exact opposite fashion to Friday's contest. This time, it was the Gophers that jumped out to an early lead. Tony Lucia shot the puck past Badger goalie Brett Bennett on a 2-on-1 at just 1:17 of the first period giving the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Only 5 minutes later, Zach Budish tipped in a Tony Lucia pass to make the game 2-0 Gophers. Despite multiple Badger power plays, the Gophers held their 2-0 lead into the first intermission. Kangas came up huge in the first period and all night, stopping 17 Badger shots in the opening frame. The Gophers mustered 6 shots in the first.
The Gophers again got on the board, this time late in the second period, when Patrick White knocked the puck into a nearly open net on a broken play, making the game 3-0 in favor of Minnesota. The Gophers were again outshot in the second period to the tune of 15-10. Many of those 15 Badger shots were difficult saves for Alex Kangas, including one near the end of a Badger power play. On an across-the-goalmouth pass, Kangas made a toe save on a seemingly wide open goal and kicked it away, preserving what at the time was a shutout bid.
Any Gopher-Badger game has to have some excitement, and this game was no exception. Jake Gardiner scored at 28 seconds of the third period to bring the Badgers within two goals at 3-1. The Gophers seemed to shell up after the Gardiner goal, content to chip the puck out of the zone and get frequent line changes to keep the players fresh. Brian Schack added another Gopher insurance goal at 8:31 of the third period. His shot from the point snuck its way into the back of the Badger net.
That appeared to be the nail in the coffin, but the Badgers came storming back. Ryan McDonagh knocked a puck out of midair into the back of the Gopher net at 12:14 of the period to again bring the Badgers within two goals of the Gopher lead at 4-2. There were several flurries after the McDonagh goal in which Alex Kangas had to come up with critical saves to preserve the victory, but Zach Budish's empty-net goal at 18:59 of the third period all but sealed the Gopher win.
The Gophers did not score on their power play and are now 2-35 on the season. I know that they're not a 5.7% power play unit so they must be a little snakebit, but nothing they do with the man advantage leads me to believe that they will have a best-in-the-nation type of power play this year. They do too much passing and try to make the perfect play far too often. The Gophers need to stop trying to make the perfect play and start looking for second-chance opportunities to score on the power play.
Also of concern is the staggering shot totals the Gophers are allowing this year. After being outshot by Wisconsin 47-28 last night, the Gophers are averaging a defecit of 7.5 shots per game to their opponents. The Gophers have always been a team that drubs the opposing team in shots, so I'm curious as to where our cautious shooting is coming from this year. I understand that the last two games were against Wisconsin, who plays a very defensive-oriented system and prides itself on not allowing many shots on net, but to be outshot by an average of 7 shots per game over 8 games so far does not bode well for the rest of the year. Part of the problem may be the team's willingness to score goals causing defensive lapses, especially early in the year against Denver. Let's hope that this is more of the issue than the fact that the Gophers don't have a good team defense this year. You cannot expect your goaltender to make 40+ saves every game and be a very good team.
Tonight's 3 Gopher Stars of the Game:
3. Tony Lucia
Lucia tacked another solid game to his year, tallying the first goal of the game as well as a couple assists. Lucia now has four goals and five assists in just eight games, and leads the team in goals, assists and total points.
2. Zach Budish
Budish was solid in Saturday's contest, scoring the second goal of the game as well as the last goal. While it is great to see Budish find some of his scoring touch, it was his work in the corners and in front of the net that caught my eye. Budish is a big body at 6'3", 220 lbs., and he's beginning to use that size to his advantage. He is a physical presence in front of the net as he asserts himself and can begin to bang in rebounds, and he cannot be moved off of the puck in the corners.
1. Alex Kangas
The man stopped 45 Badger shots on Saturday. Not much else to say. He made saves on breakaways and odd-man rushes, and he made the key saves when they counted. He was excellent, and gave the Gophers an outstanding effort to record his third victory of the year.
The Gophers face off against the Bemidji State Beavers this upcoming Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday's opening faceoff scheduled for 7:30.