If the Gophers end up turning this season around and making a charge into the playoffs, tonight's game was the game where the Gophers turned the corner.
The Gophers (12-10-2, 7-7-2 WCHA) shellacked the visiting Fighting Sioux of North Dakota (12-7-5, 8-7-3 WCHA) 5-1 in Saturday's rematch and earned a key three points in the weekend series after a 3-3 tie Friday.
Saturday's game started off slow, with both teams carrying the play pretty evenly. The Gophers' junior goaltender Alex Kangas made several key saves to keep the game a 0-0 tie late into the first period. Freshman forward Josh Birkholz put a pretty shot high stick side past North Dakota goalie Brad Eidsness to put the Maroon and Gold ahead 1-0 at 18:11 of the first period.
The second period started in much the same way that the first 18 minutes of the first period went: quick-paced, well rounded hockey from both teams. The Gophers got a nice bounce when a puck that Zach Budish swatted at in the faceoff circle fluttered over Eidsness' shoulder into the net for a 2-0 Gopher lead at 14:51 of the period. Then, Tony Lucia's breakaway goal at 18:06 of the second sparked a Golden Gopher rally that lasted the remainder of the game. Jacob Cepis scored another goal just seven seconds later, and the Gophers were off to the races. Goals by Mike Hoeffel and North Dakota's Darcy Zajac in the third period rounded out the scoring.
Especially strong tonight was the play of Alex Kangas. He made all the stops that he was supposed to and many near impossible saves. More about him in the three stars below. Nearly every player on this roster could get a star tonight from the overall team effort on display, but we've gotta keep it at three, so here they are.
Three Gopher Stars of the Night:
3. Josh Birkholz
Birkholz played his typical brand of speed hockey, and he is really beginning to show that he can flash some skill too. Birkholz scored the all-important first goal of the game, and added a measure of toughness that has been lacking so far with this team.
2. Tony Lucia
Lucia wears the captain's "C" on his jersey, and he showed why tonight, tallying a crucial breakaway goal as well as putting in yeoman's work on the penalty kill (the Sioux were 0-6 on the man advantage) and playing a complete game. He was tough when he needed to be, didn't respond to the Sioux's typical aggressive game plan, and bulged the twine when he had the chance. Great game from the captain. The other captain, Ryan Flynn, actually had a very solid game tonight as well. Nice work from the upperclassmen.
1. Alex Kangas
Kangas proved to be too much for the North Dakota offensive attack. He stopped all but one of the Sioux's 35 shots. Many of those shots were point-blank one-timers and redirects. Kangas was on his game all night long. With the Gophers playing well on both sides of the puck in front of him, he and the team earned a huge win against our biggest rival.
The Gophers can get back into the NCAA tournament mix if they keep on winning, and they'll get another good test next weekend as they square off against the St. Cloud State Huskies. Three points or better in that series and the buzz will be that the Gophers are making a serious late-season charge. Here's hoping that tonight's game was just the start!