Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gophers Close Out Solid First Half With Home Split Against Feisty Michigan Tech Huskies

Going into last weekend's home series against the Michigan Tech Huskies, many Minnesota fans were counting on an easy four points heading into the team's annual holiday break.

How does that saying about best laid plans go, again?

Coming off a surprisingly difficult home sweep of the Minnesota State Mavericks, the Minnesota Gophers again stumbled on a Friday night, falling in the opening game of the series before pulling away at the end of a chippy Saturday game to earn a split on the weekend.

Friday 12/9/11: 3-2 Gopher Loss

Minnesota has not had a weekend off yet this season, and the effort the Gophers showed in Friday night's game showcased it. The Maroon and Gold came out of the gates looking tired, and thankfully Michigan Tech did not do much to capitalize on the Gophers' general lethargy. In fact, Minnesota got off to a 1-0 lead in the first period, on a Mark Alt shot that deflected into the Michigan Tech net off of a Tech defender's skate. The even-strength goal came at 10:22 of the period, but Michigan Tech got a flukey goal of their own when Blake Pietila scored off of a deflection in front of the Gopher net by Travis Boyd. Pietila was actually behind the Minnesota net and centered the puck into the slot, where it hit Boyd's stick and caromed into the Gopher cage. No more scoring was to be had in the first period.

The second period was a better one for Minnesota, who outshot the Huskies 14-5 in the middle frame. However, Michigan Tech goalkeeper Josh Robinson, who was brilliant all weekend long, kept the Gophers off the board for the period. Robinson's counterpart Kent Patterson did his part as well for Minnesota, so the teams entered the third period tied at one goal each.

The tie lasted for 1:07 into the third period, when Daniel Sova scored yet another goal off of a deflection to give Michigan Tech its first lead of the game at 2-1. Minnesota crawled its way back into the contest with a Seth Helgeson one-time slapshot goal (assisted by Mark Alt) at 6:57 of the period. Although the Gophers had a power play opportunity in the middle of the third period that generated tons of quality scoring chances as well as a Nate Condon breakaway with about five minutes remaining in regulation, the teams remained tied at two going into overtime.

The extra period was over quickly. Just 0:33 into the frame, the Gophers turned the puck over at the offensive blue line, and Michigan Tech's Brett Olson was skating one-on-one with Gopher defenseman Seth Helgeson. Helgeson, not known for being fleet of foot, was beat around the outside and Olson fired a shot from in close that beat Kent Patterson five-hole and gave the Huskies a big 3-2 overtime victory.

Saturday: 6-2 Gopher Win

Saturday's game evolved very similarly to the Friday contest, with the Gophers getting off to one goal leads in each period before giving those leads back. Minnesota's Kyle Rau opened the Gopher scoring attack with a rebound goal from just outside the crease. Mark Alt had taken a shot from the blue line, and Rau was in front of the net to collect the puck and calmly put it past Michigan Tech keeper Josh Robinson. The Rau goal came at 7:37 of the period and was also assisted by Taylor Matson. The Huskies came back late in the first and tied the game on a Jordan Baker power play goal at 16:35, and the period ended in a one-all tie.

The second period saw the Gophers take another one goal lead, this time on a Jake Hansen power play tally. Hansen tipped an Erik Haula blast from the point through Robinson's five hole at 12:50 of the period. Although Minnesota did not allow a goal in the second, they set themselves up for failure early in the third when Blake Thompson blasted a Michigan Tech forward and received a five-minute Contact to the Head penalty and a game misconduct.

Minnesota killed off the first two-plus minutes of the major to end the second period ahead by a goal, but the pesky Huskies clawed their way back into the game with an early power play goal by Daniel Sova. His goal at 1:26 tied the game at two goals each, and just like Friday the game was tied at two in the third period. However, unlike Friday, Minnesota took advantage of their scoring chances and pulled away to win the game easily.

Just two minutes, twenty four seconds after the Sova game-tying goal, Mark Alt blasted a one-timer past Josh Robinson to give the Gophers a 3-2 lead. The Alt goal was set up by a perfect Nate Schmidt pass. Schmidt also assisted on the Gophers' next goal, a Nick Bjugstad tally at 9:59 of the period. Joey Miller, playing in his first game of the season on an all-new fourth line that also included Christian Isackson and Nico Sacchetti (a line which played quite well all night), scored his first goal of the year off a Mark Alt rebound shot at 12:03.

At this point, the game started to get chippy. Blake Pietila took a boarding penalty with just over three minutes left in the game. Dennis Rix took a five-minute major for high sticking when he intentionally whacked Kyle Rau in the head with the blade of his stick, and at the same time Jordan Baker took a 10 minute misconduct. When Jake Hansen scored on the ensuing Gopher 5-on-3 at 18:14, things got ugly. Immediately after the Hansen goal, a big fight broke out in front of the Michigan Tech net, as every Husky on the ice was roughing it up with any Gopher they could find. Once the referees got the players back to the faceoff dot with the Gophers up 6-2, another fight broke out as Seth Helgeson and Carl Nielsen roughed it up near the benches. At this point, Michigan Tech assistant coach Bill Muckalt got up on the bench and yelled across the plexiglass at the Gopher coaches. FSN cameras caught Muckalt challenging the Gopher coaches to fight, mouthing "come on over here" to Gopher assistant Grant Potulny. Potulny reportedly told Muckalt to "sit the **** down".

The game ended with little fanfare after the ruckus and after a brief pause both teams and sets of coaches shook hands with one another after a hard-fought weekend.

Coming up, I'll take a look at the three Gopher stars of the weekend as well as the stars of the first half of the season, then we'll update the WCHA power rankings, and finally we'll analyze what can only be described as a great first half of hockey from the Gophers and preview what should be an exciting second half.

Go Gophers!

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