As Don Lucia said earlier in the week: "If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man."
A weekend sweep for the Gophers should go a long way towards confirming Minnesota's status as "the man" in the WCHA.
A furious third period comeback sparked by the Gophers' often-impressive fourth line erased a one-goal deficit and a late Kyle Rau goal led Minnesota (9-1-0 Overall, 6-0-0 WCHA) to a Saturday win and a weekend sweep over the hated North Dakota Fighting Sioux (3-6-1 Overall, 1-5-0 WCHA).
Saturday 10/5/11 - 3-2 Gopher Win
Minnesota's Friday night opening period was tentative and nervous. Saturday was a completely different story. The Gophers came out guns blazing and took it to the Sioux throughout the frame. The Maroon and Gold outshot North Dakota 19-5 in the period, and it appeared that they'd continue their dominance on the scoreboard as well. Nick Bjugstad scored a great hustle goal at 7:09 of the period, as he forechecked hard to pop the puck loose from the North Dakota defense before parking himself in front of the net and jamming a Zach Budish pass home. The goal gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead which they would relinquish before the period expired. Brock Nelson scored on a laser wrist shot that beat Kent Patterson high to the glove side. The power play goal came at 9:46 and evened the game up at one goal a piece, which is where the score would stay as the players entered the locker rooms for the first intermission.
The North Dakota coaches must have made some adjustments between periods, because it was the Fighting Sioux that would have the better of the play in the second period. Minnesota let their game lapse a little bit in the middle frame of the contest, failing to connect tape-to-tape on passes and not battling to win the one-on-one puck battles that so often define outcomes in games. The Sioux on the other hand were hustling to pucks and overall elevated their game. Although Minnesota outshot North Dakota 12-6 in the period, most of the Gopher shots were from the perimeter. The Gophers did not connect in the period, but North Dakota's freshman phenom Rocco Grimaldi put the Sioux ahead 2-1 with yet another laser wrister that beat Kent Patterson high to the glove side at 8:39 of the middle frame. No more scoring would occur in the period, and Minnesota would need to regroup before the third if they wanted to make some noise and grab another point or two in the standings.
Thankfully, the Gophers responded in the third. The first ten minutes of the period were filled with mostly futile Gopher attempts to get the puck to the front of the net. Minnesota was pressing, which led to a few big Sioux chances - most notably a 3-on-1 in which Ben Blood fed Brock Nelson in front of the Gopher goal. Netminder Patterson sprawled his right pad out to make the save and keep the game alive for the Gophers. Minnesota needed just one shot to sneak past Sioux goalie Aaron Dell to tie the game. A tall order, but the Gophers got just what they were looking for when a great hustle play by Minnesota's fourth line created a turnover behind the net. Travis Boyd, the freshman fourth line center out of Hopkins, streaked behind the net to intercept a D-to-D pass and fed the puck into the slot for senior Nick Larson. Larson's shot at 13:56 slithered through Dell's five hole and somehow made its way into the back of the net to tie the game at 2-2.
With just six minutes left to play, the Gophers had stolen all of the momentum and it appeared that the game would head into overtime. However, with less than a minute to go Nick Bjugstad gained control of the puck behind the Sioux net and threw it out into the crease. Zach Budish and Kyle Rau were in front of the net, and although Dell turned aside Budish's first attempt it was Rau that grabbed the rebound and stuffed it into the corner of the net. Rau's goal at 19:14 gave the Gophers the lead at 3-2, and that is how the game would finish.
Minnesota's sweep of North Dakota was the first since 1996, and it gave them a perfect 6-0 WCHA record heading into their series next weekend at Wisconsin. The Gophers are now 9-1-0 on the young season and are perhaps the hottest team in the country. They've shown they can win big, they can come from behind and they can gut out a close victory. Jump on the bandwagon, ladies and gentlemen, because these guys are for real.
Game Highlights courtesy of Gopher Sports
Here are the Gopher goals in the third period:
Three Gopher Stars of the Game
3. Travis Boyd: 0G-1A-1P
The entirety of the fourth line deserves some recognition here. The best Gopher teams have always had a fourth line they could rely on to hustle and play good minutes. The championship years of the early 2000's saw the gold standard of Gopher fourth lines with Jake Flemming, Jon Waibel and Garret Smaagaard. Well, don't look now but Minnesota has a pretty good group playing on the fourth line this year, with Travis Boyd centering Nick Larson and Tom Serratore. Serratore scored a goal in last night's game, and Nick Larson got the game-tying goal in the, but it was Travis Boyd that stood out to me in Saturday's matchup. Boyd does a lot of little things right. He's a good two-way forward with a little bit of offensive pizzaz and plenty of hockey knowledge. Boyd did the bulk of the work on the Gophers' second goal, and we see a lot of Travis Boyd on the excellent Gopher penalty kill. Great game by him and a very deserving number three star.
2. Kyle Rau: 1G-0A-1P
Rau is always in the right place at the right time. This kid has a higher hockey IQ than any player I've ever seen. He was right next to the net at the end of the game and it seems like the puck just squirts onto his stick in big situations. Rau had plenty of chances on the backdoor tonight, but he put in the one that mattered with only 45 seconds left to seal the Gopher victory. Rau's gutty goal earned him the number two star of the game.
1. Kent Patterson: 17 Saves on 19 Shots, .895 Sv %
Patterson did not have his best game tonight, but he made the big saves in the third period when the Gophers needed him to keep them in the game. A good positional goaltender, Patterson always makes the solid saves and avoids giving up too many rebounds. His saves in the third allowed the goal by Nick Larson to matter. Patterson's key presence in net earns him my number one star.
Next Week: AT Wisconsin
The Gophers travel to Madison next weekend to take on the Badgers. Wisconsin is an enigma of a team this season, sporting some good wins (vs. Nebraska-Omaha, sweep vs. North Dakota) and some rough losses (vs. UNO after being up 3-0 early, at St. Cloud 7-2, swept at Michigan Tech). The team is still trying to find its identity after a dearth of early departures from last year's squad, including both senior goalkeepers. Freshman Landon Peterson appears to have taken the reins in goal for the Badgers, but the start has been shaky at best. Winning on the road is always difficult so a road split for the Gophers would not be a bad result, but I'm hoping that the Gophers' depth and talent advantages over Bucky will net at least three points for Minnesota in the WCHA standings. Both games next weekend start at 7:05 central time.