The Gophers avoided a sweep last weekend after another vapid and uninspired Friday night performance at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers dropped the opening game of the weekend series against the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks 3-1 before eventually winning the Saturday night tilt 6-2 in Mankato.
The Gophers got on the board early Friday night with a nice goal by Sophomore forward Jake Hansen. Hansen found himself in the slot with the puck and bulged the twine for his third goal of the season. The Mavericks tied it up late in the first with a tally by Senior forward Jerad Stewart.
Although the score was tied after the first period, the tide of the game was turned clearly in favor of the Mavericks. Holding an 18-4 shot advantage going into the first intermission, the Mavs controlled the pace and style of play in the opening frame.
The second and third periods were much more even Neither team scored in the second period despite putting up 11 shots on goal each. The third saw two goals, both for the boys in purple. The Mavericks scored the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner on a 2-on-1 rush. Rylan Galiardi kept the puck himself rushing up the left wing and somehow beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson beneath his blocker. The Mavericks would add an empty-net goal in the last minute of the game to put the nail in the coffin.
Notable Gopher performances in Friday night's game came from Josh Birkholz, who hustles and competes every night but had not yet found the back of the net (read on...), and Kent Patterson, who played very solidly and gave his team a chance to win.
Saturday was a completely different story for the Gophers, even though it had a similar beginning. Nick Leddy opened the scoring for the Maroon and Gold, putting one past Maverick goalie Austin Lee on a screen shot. This time, though, the Gophers were able to build on their lead thanks to the hustle of Josh Birkholz. Birkholz, who had up until this point been one of the unsung heroes and only bright spots on this Gopher team, scored the second and third goals of the game, the first on a shot from the left wing and the second on a nifty rush where he weaved around three Maverick players before top-shelfing a backhand past Lee.
The third goal of the game was one of the few times that the Gophers have gotten that "separation" goal that they have so desperately needed this season but as of yet had not been able to get. It turns out that they would have to do it twice Saturday. A late period goal by Tyler Pitlick in the first period and another goal by Pitlick halfway through the second had the Mavericks back within one, but the Gophers finally pulled away for good in the third. An early Gopher goal by Nico Sacchetti, followed by goals from Patrick White and Taylor Matson, salted the game away and gave the Gophers a 6-2 victory.
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend:
3. Brian Schack
Schack only played in Saturday's contest, and only notched one assist on the weekend, but he gets a star for the weekend because he was able to play effective hockey without gooning it up or getting pummeled by the Mavericks. Remember, one of the keys to this weekend series was to be the physicality as the Mavericks were itching to avenge Schack's fights last year that resulted in Maverick captain Channing Boe's broken leg. Schack was able to stay out of trouble, play fairly solid defense, and contribute an assist to the cause, and that deserves a star this weekend.
2. Nick Leddy
Leddy's return means a lot of things for the Gophers. First and foremost, it means that they have seven active defensemen on the roster, so someone can take a breather each and every night. The roster is no longer spread so thin, which can only be a good thing for this team. Leddy also came up with a crucial goal on Saturday and contributed positively otherwise on both sides of the puck.
1. Josh Birkholz
This kid has absolutely blazing speed. I think he compares favorably with some of the fastest Gopher players that I can remember (Phil Kessel, Troy Riddle and Aaron Miskovich come to mind). His work ethic and grit, combined with the afterburners, make Birkholz an impressive player that can contribute offensively, defensively, and can come up with both the big hit and the big play. He would've been a star this weekend even without his two goal performance on Saturday. Birkholz did sustain an injury late in the game on Saturday, but Coach Lucia is "hopeful" that he'll play this weekend. I'm hopeful, too, that we'll see him suited up on Friday in Houghton, MI, as the Gophers take on the Michigan Tech Huskies in a weekend series.