Coming into last weekend's series, the Minnesota Gophers were on top of the WCHA standings and on top of their game, winners of 11 of their first 16 games and one point ahead of the red-hot UMD Bulldogs in the league race. Minnesota State, on the other hand, had had a rough go of it. Riddled with injuries, the Mavericks had won only three of their first fourteen games and only two wins in the WCHA conference.
It truly was the best of times and the worst of times for these two separate teams.
They play the games on the ice, not on paper, and Minnesota State gave the Gophers all that they could handle. At the end of the night, though, Minnesota pulled out two narrow victories on the weekend to hold onto their lead in the WCHA and continue on their quest for an NCAA tournament bid.
Friday 12/2/11: 4-2 Gopher Win
Friday's game may have surpassed the Friday Wisconsin game (which the Gophers lost 3-1) in terms of Minnesota's ugliest game of the season. The Maroon and Gold got off to a great start in each period, scoring goals less than five minutes into every frame. However, the Gophers seemed to coast after their goals in the first and second periods, to the point that the Mavericks were outshooting and outplaying Minnesota after forty minutes of action. Senior captain Taylor Matson got the Gophers on the board just ninety-eight seconds into the game, with a shot from the slot that beat Minnesota State goaltender Austin Lee. Nate Condon and Seth Helgeson added assists on Matson's fourth goal of the season. Mankato would tie the game at 8:04 of the period on what could be called a soft goal for Gopher goalie Kent Patterson to give up. The Mavericks' Evan Mosey put the puck into the back of the Minnesota net on a shot from just inside the blue line. Patterson may have been screened or the puck may have deflected off of the Minnesota defenseman, but either way it was a shot Patterson would have liked to have had back. The period ended at 1-1, and the teams were tied at 12 shots a piece.
The second period opened with another early Gopher goal. Nick Larson potted his second of the year on a rush down the right wing. Ben Marshall faked a shot to pull the defenseman to him and fed Larson the puck. Larson drove the net and put a shot past Lee on the near-side post. The goal at 3:38 of the period gave the Gophers another early period lead which they would later relinquish. The Mavericks tied the game on the powerplay at 9:28 of the period when Jean-Paul LaFontaine found the puck and shot it into the net past a slough of Gopher and Maverick players piled on top of Kent Patterson. The referees reviewed the play and determined that Gopher forward Nick Bjugstad had checked the Maverick player into Kent Patterson, causing him to be out of position when the puck crossed the line. The Gopher players and coaching staff were upset, and tempers flared for both sides just a couple minutes later when three players (two Mavericks and Gopher Kyle Rau) were given penalties for roughing after the whistle. The rest of the period passed uneventfully until 19:59, when Seth Ambroz took a cross-checking minor to send the Gophers down a man for nearly two full minutes heading into the third period.
Thankfully for Minnesota, the Gophers were able to kill the early-period penalty and draw a power play of their own, when Ben Marshall drove the net and was taken down by Minnesota State's Matt Leiter. The tripping minor would prove to be crucial, as Minnesota's Erik Haula would score his ninth goal of the young season on the power play at 4:51. The slapshot goal from the right point was assisted by Nate Schmidt and Nick Bjugstad.
Unlike the previous two periods, Minnesota would not give up their lead. The Gophers dominated the period, outshooting the Mavericks 13-5 in the frame. Jake Hansen sealed the game with an empty net goal (assisted by Zach Budish) with less than a minute to go in the game.
Saturday 12/3/11: 3-2 Gopher Win
Although the Gophers won by a slimmer margin on Saturday night, the team played decidedly better and had to overcome far greater adversity in their latest victory. Minnesota was shorthanded a total of nine times throughout the game (including an extended 5-on-3), and they gave up only two goals on those chances. Also, despite being down a man for a significant portion of the game, the Gophers badly outshot the Mavericks on the game, 40-28 overall. Yet another interesting marker of this weekend (and of the entire season): the Gopher dominance of the third period continued. The Gophers carried the majority of the play in the third period both nights, as evidenced by their advantage in third period shots on goal. Combined, Minnesota outshot Minnesota State 22-9 in the final periods this weekend, and the Gophers have scored 30 goals in the third period or overtime while giving up only eight goals in the final frame.
The Gophers scored early and often on Saturday night, getting first period tallies from Seth Ambroz, Taylor Matson and Kyle Rau. Assists on those goals went to Zach Budish (x2), Taylor Matson, Seth Ambroz, Nate Condon and Mark Alt.
Although Minnesota built a big lead, Minnesota State did not give up. As mentioned above, the Mavericks were on the power play nine times in the period, and Zach Lehrke took advantage, scoring 2:32 into the second period and 4:00 into the third (on a 5-on-3) to cut the Gopher lead to just one. However, the Gophers weathered the Maverick press and came out of the game with a narrow 3-2 victory.
Next Weekend: Gophers vs. Michigan Tech
The Gophers host the tied-for-sixth-place Michigan Tech Huskies next weekend. The Huskies are much improved over last year, having already racked up more victories than the team did all of last season. Much of that has to do with health and a new vision behind the bench. Last year's Tech team was decimated by injuries, and this year's team has new head coach and former Husky player Mel Pearson at the helm. Pearson has injected some life into the program, but Michigan Tech has still had a tough time on the road - the team is only 2-4 on the road this year, and at Minnesota will be the team's toughest test so far. Michigan Tech is coming off being swept at home by the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs so they could be hungry for wins. I could see the Huskies stealing a win from Minnesota, but I expect a weekend sweep for the Gophers heading into the winter break.
Look out for the Three Gopher Stars of the weekend post tomorrow! Go Gophers!