The Minnesota Gophers face a tough challenge this weekend in the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs, ranked #2 in the country with a 12-2-2 record coming into the series, are a tough team with a high-end offense that is led by their first line. Mike Connelly, Jack Connelly and Justin Fontaine has combined for 27 of the team's 65 total goals (42%). The UMD powerplay has hummed along at just over 25% on the season, and with the Gophers sporting the nation's third-worst penalty kill (at 73% on the season) as well as a penchant to play poor defense in their own zone, this game looked like a blowout on paper.
However, we've seen the Gophers step up and beat good teams when they give a solid effort for a full sixty minutes. The Gophers beat a very good Michigan squad with maximum effort for three whole periods. Could they bring that work ethic against a very good UMD squad?
Friday: 3-2 Gopher Win
Don Lucia gave the nod to Kent Patterson in goal, and with the aforementioned firepower UMD possesses, Patterson would likely need to come up big if the Gophers stood a chance in the game. It would also be important for the Gophers to get on the scoreboard early. The Gophers have only won one game this year when giving up the first goal (a 2-1 win against St. Cloud State), so it was imperative that the team get off to a good start.
And they did. Just three minutes into the game, Nick Larson tipped a Seth Helgeson slapshot from the point past Bulldog goalie Kenny Reiter to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Shortly after, defenseman Cade Fairchild took a Bulldog check and went into the boards hard, appearing to dislocate his shoulder or break his collarbone. Fairchild did not return to the game, and his status for the rest of the season remains in doubt.
Minnesota skated with Duluth all period, at times looking like the better team, until a late powerplay gave UMD a chance to take advantage of the Gophers' lackluster penalty kill. The potent Bulldog powerplay clicked with just under 14 seconds remaining in the period, as Jack Connelly put a screened shot past Patterson to tie the game. Although Duluth had just scored, you got the sense that the Gophers still had the momentum going into the break. The fact that Minnesota had skated toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country through twenty minutes seemed to embolden the Gophers.
The second period was a very even affair. Both teams had quality scoring opportunities, but the goalies came up big. Patterson especially made quality stops, stoning Bulldog attackers left and right with plenty of help from the short-handed defensive corps. About seven minutes into the period, Nico Sacchetti cut to the slot in the offensive zone and fired a wrister into the corner of the net, to give the Gophers another lead at 2-1. This goal really fired up the Maroon and Gold, who played with passion and vigor, generating chances and keeping Duluth on their heels. Midway through the period the Gophers drew a Bulldog penalty, and after all the bad puck luck from last year's UMD-Minnesota series (at least two UMD goals scored off of Gopher skates) the Gophers were due for a break. They got one, when a Reiter rebound bounced off of Bulldog defenseman Dylan Olsen and into the back of the net. The goal at 13:36 of the period, was unassisted to Barriball, but the Hockey Gods definitely got an assist on that one. The Gophers finished the period strong, and had a two-goal cushion going into the third period.
Scott Sandelin's intermission speech must have been pretty good, because the Bulldogs came out strong in the third period. The Gophers played into the Bulldogs' plans, going into the prevent defense and crawling into their shell. Minnesota-Duluth was piling on the offense, taking shot after shot after shot at Kent Patterson. Patterson was up to the challenge, making high degree-of-difficulty saves on shots from UMD's best players. Duluth got a boost when a questionable Mike Hoeffel high-sticking call sent them on the powerplay, and they again took advantage of a bad Gopher penalty kill. A Justin Faulk rocket slapshot hit the absolute top corner of the goal, and with just over five minutes left in the game the Bulldogs were right back in the game.
The Bulldogs put on the full court press for the last five minutes, and the Gophers could only try to hold on for dear life. Duluth pulled their goalie with just under 90 seconds left, and many mad flurries in front of the Gopher net were handled with aplomb by Patterson. However, a cross-ice pass with 20 seconds left set up Justin Fontaine with a wide open net to shoot at. Fontaine's shot was right on the money, but Kent Patterson dove from the other side of the crease and his outstretched blocker got in the way of the twine-seeking puck and batted it to the corner. The Gophers cleared the puck out of the zone and celebrated a 3-2 victory.
Gopher Player of the Game: Kent Patterson
Patterson made 37 shots on the night, none bigger than the diving save on Fontaine's snipe with the game on the line. Patterson gave the team a chance to win, and without his stellar play at the back the Gophers' three goals would never have stood up. Patterson's performance stole a huge game for the Gophers, and gives them a chance to sweep a huge series going into the winter break.
The Gophers will go for that sweep Sunday afternoon at 4 PM. I'll see you there!