As the noose tightens around the Minnesota Gophers, each and every point lost is another nail in the NCAA Tournament coffin. Last weekend in Duluth the Gophers played two full games of solid hockey but pounded three more nails onto an already tight coffin lid, as Minnesota tied and lost to take only one out of a possible four points.
Friday: 2-2 Tie
The Gophers played a good game for 65 minutes and never trailed on Friday night against the #3 team in the country. For a team that just hasn't lived up to what it should be this year, it is only fitting that Minnesota would only come away with a tie.
The Gophers opened the game with a fairly unusual penalty kill, weathering a Seth Helgeson elbowing call at 3:40 of the first. Minnesota got a power play chance of its own on a Trent Palm holding call at 7:40, and the Gophers capitalized on Cade Fairchild's fourth goal of the season, with helpers from Nate Condon and Nick Bjugstad at 9:34 of the first. Although there was no more scoring in the period, there were plenty of chances, as UMD had two more power plays and Minnesota had one more chance on the man-advantage. The Gophers out-shot the Bulldogs 14-10 in the period, and looked every bit as good as the #3 team in the nation.
The second period began yet again with an early Seth Helgeson penalty, a tripping call just nine seconds into the period. This penalty was set up by an incredibly boneheaded play by Cade Fairchild that resulted in a two-on-one and a near-goal that was only averted by the Helgeson penalty. The Gophers once again killed the Minnesota-Duluth power play, but Duluth struck just minutes after the power play expired. Justin Fontaine scored his 16th goal of the season at 5:46 to level the game at one goal each. A few minutes later, Jay Barriball snuck behind the defense and was fed a breakaway pass to go in all alone versus UMD goalie Kenny Reiter, but Barriball's shot was not high enough on the glove side to beat Reiter and the Bulldog netminder stoned Barriball to keep the game tied up. Barriball, though, would get another chance, when on a great hustle play Barriball stole the puck from a UMD defenseman in the corner and broke right to the net, stuffing the puck past Reiter through the five-hole and giving the Gophers another lead over Duluth at 8:42 of the second.
Again, Duluth responded right back just ninety seconds later, as Mike Connolly beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson to tie the game back up at two. Both teams played at a high level the rest of the period, but Patterson and Reiter were up to the challenge, with each netminder stopping the remainder of the shots in the period to lead their teams into the locker rooms tied at two.
The third period began with a third Seth Helgeson early penalty, this one a coincidental minor for roughing with the Bulldogs' Jake Hendrickson. The Bulldogs had the better of the play in the third period, with their skill players controlling the pace and controlling the puck in the Minnesota defensive zone for long stretches of time. Kent Patterson would not let his team lose, stopping all 14 UMD shots in the period.
Patterson definitely gave his team a chance to win the game, but the Gophers could not capitalize on their numerous chances in the third, and the teams ended regulation play tied at two. The five-minute overtime featured chances for both teams, including a rare overtime power play for the Gophers on a boarding call that may have been a checking-from-behind penalty in regulation play. However, other than one wild flurry in front of the Bulldog net, the Gophers did not get much going on their power play, and the end of the game felt a lot like both teams were content with the tie - okay for #3 Duluth, but the Gophers need every win they can get down the stretch.
The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Player of the Game: Kent Patterson
I'm glad I finally named this award after the guy that wins it every night. Patterson kept the team in the game and gave them a chance to win. It's not his fault that the team can't score goals and can't capitalize on their opportunities. The team played pretty well in front of Patterson on Friday, helping him kill off all five of UMD's power plays.
A tie was a good start for this Gopher team, but a start is all that it was. Minnesota has dug itself such a big hole thus far into the season that it needs every single point that it can get, and "losing" a point in a game when the team could have stolen a win at Duluth could loom large as we move towards the end of the season and the margin of error gets narrower and narrower. The Gophers cannot afford much worse than a tie on Saturday, as the schedule only gets tougher from here on out. Would they be able to put together another good performance and come away with a win in the series finale?
Saturday: 6-4 Gopher Loss
Well, Minnesota did put together another good performance. Unfortunately, Bulldog forward Mike Connolly proved to be too much for the Gopher defensive corps and for Gopher goalie Kent Patterson. Connolly scored five goals, including Duluth's first four, and a questionable call by the referees helped to stifle the Gopher comeback and give the Bulldogs the victory.
Although the Gophers started the first period with a power play at 5:40, it was the Bulldogs that got on the board first in the period. Mike Connolly's first goal of the game came at 8:04 of the period. His second goal of the game came at 15:49 of the period, on the power play. His third goal of the game came at 1:22 of the second period, and occurred when Nico Sacchetti slid into Kent Patterson, knocking the rebound into his own net. This wouldn't be Sacchetti's only bad play of the game, but more on that later.
The Gophers found themselves down 3-0 just 21:22 into the game, but this team has shown more life in the last few weeks, and began to roll right after Connolly's hat-trick goal. Kevin Wehrs scored on a shot from the point just 33 seconds after the Bulldog goal to bring the Gophers within two at 3-1. Mike Hoeffel scored just before the halfway point of the period to bring the team within one goal at 3-2. With just over four minutes left in the second, Patrick White led a rush up the side of the rink, put a shot on net, got his own rebound and rifled the puck past UMD goalie Aaron Crandall for what appeared to be the game-tying goal. However, Nico Sacchetti was streaking in on the goaltender's weak side, and it appeared that he was hooked / held and he bumped into the goalie as White's shot went in the net. The referees saw the play differently, however, and not only waived off the Gopher goal but gave UMD a power play out of the deal.
Nearly immediately after the UMD power play started, the referees called a "make-up call" penalty on Duluth, but the intense momentum the Gophers were playing with had evaporated. Any residual of that momentum was extinguished when Mike Connolly scored his fourth goal of the game, one of the few "soft" goals that I've seen Patterson give up all year, on a wrist shot from the top of the circle. Patterson had a clear view of the shooter and the puck, but the biscuit found the twine and gave UMD another two goal lead going into the third period.
To their credit, Minnesota did not give up following the White non-goal and the Connolly insurance-marker. Cade Fairchild scored his second goal of the weekend in his hometown with just over ten minutes remaining in the period to draw the Gophers again within one. UMD had a goal disallowed on a similar play to the Sacchetti no-goal, but the referees did not call a penalty on the Bulldogs on this one. Just minutes later, Travis Oleksuk rang the crossbar with a shot that bounced back under Kent Patterson. Patterson tried to fall on the puck, but ended up putting it into his own net, and just like that UMD had another two goal lead. The Gophers pulled their goalie down two and actually scored right away, with Nate Condon ringing one off the post and in. However, Mike Connolly put the puck into the Gophers' empty net, and his fifth goal of the game sealed it for the Bulldogs, salvaging a 6-4 victory.
The "Kent Patterson" Gopher Player of the Game: Patrick White
This award is by default awarded to a Gopher. The best Gopher on Saturday was Patrick White. He should have been credited with a goal on the Sacchetti-interference call, but he played an effective game for 60 minutes.
However, this game was all about Mike Connolly. Five goals (one empty-netter) was more than the Gophers scored all game. Although the game may have turned out differently had White's goal counted, there's no question that Mike Connolly was the player of the game.
The Gophers needed at least two points this weekend. They got one.
Now they'll need to steal a game or two against equally tough competition. The Gophers take on WCHA-leading Denver this weekend, then go to Madison to face the Badgers. The Gophers very probably need to go better than 2-2 in those tough games. Then follows Michigan Tech at home and Bemidji away, games that the Gophers all but need to sweep to stay in contention for the NCAA tournament.
It's a tough road ahead, but this team has shown the ability to play with and beat quality opponents. If they can find some consistency, this team still has a chance to make some noise going into March. The turnaround HAS to start Friday against Denver, though. Three points in that series will be the minimum requirement for this Gopher squad.
Let's see if they can make something happen down the stretch.