Coming into this weekend's action, nearly everyone was asking the same question: could a struggling Minnesota team summon the will necessary to beat a streaking Bemidji squad?
The short answer: Yes.
In another dominating performance, the Gophers took care of the visiting Beavers 4-1 to secure a weekend sweep and widen their lead in the race for the MacNaughton Cup.
Saturday 2/18/12: 4-1 Gopher Win
Friday night's game started out with a Zach Budish goal at the one minute mark of the game. On Saturday, Erik Haula was just a little late. Haula scored at 1:17 of the first to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Although Minnesota would carry the majority of the play throughout the rest of the first period, Bemidji struck for their first (and only) goal of the weekend, as Brad Hunt's slapshot from the point beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson at 17:14 to tie the game at one goal each.
The Gophers would answer in the second period. Jake Hansen tipped a Justin Holl shot past Beaver netminder Dan Bakala at 2:05 to give the Gophers another lead at 2-1. Erik Haula would score his second goal of the game on the powerplay at 7:07 of the second. At that point, the Gophers put the game on cruise control.
Minnesota played sound defensive hockey in the latter half of the second and the entirety of the third, favoring dump-ins to rushes into the zone and forcing Bemidji to rush the puck the full length of the ice to create opportunities. This strategy worked, as Bemidji could not muster another tally in the third. A Seth Ambroz empty net goal at 18:27 was the final nail in the Beaver coffin.
Three Gopher Stars of the Game
3. Jake Hansen - 1G-0A-1P
Hansen scored the game-winning goal on a beautiful tip, but he took an ill advised penalty right after Bemidji had scored to tie the game in the first period. That is a microcosm of Hansen's season thus far. The senior has been nothing if not inconsistent, playing great at times and making bad decisions at others. His goal was important in the game, but I'd like to see more of the dynamic, offensive Hansen and less of the bad passing, bad decision-making one. Perhaps he's rounding into form, as his play of late has been much more of the former and less of the latter.
2. Seth Helgeson - 0G-1A-1P
Helgeson tallied an assist on the Ambroz empty net goal, but his contributions throughout the rest of the game earn him the second star tonight. Helgeson has been maligned by yours truly throughout the years for being slow on his skates and for seemingly always pinching in at the wrong times. Tonight (and for the past few weekends) he has been steady and solid on the back end for the Gophers. He likely won't win any fastest skater contests, but Helgeson seems to have grown into his role on the team - hard-nosed, tough, defensive defender. If he can continue playing within himself and playing to his strengths, he'll find his way into the three stars a lot more often.
1. Erik Haula - 2G-1A-3P
Another great night for the Fin. Haula scored the Gophers' first and third goals, sniping shots into the corners of the net. It's great to see Minnesota get secondary scoring when the Bjugstad line does not light the lamp. If they can do it more consistently going forward, they'll be a team to be reckoned with come tournament time.
The win gave the Gophers a much needed four points on the weekend, and coupled with a Duluth tie in Mankato and a Denver loss at Wisconsin, the Gophers are once again sitting pretty in the WCHA race. Minnesota sits at 34 points, two ahead of Minnesota-Duluth (32) and four ahead of Denver (30). Interestingly, Minnesota holds the tiebreaker against Duluth thanks to their two head-to-head wins at the beginning of the season, but loses the tiebreaker to Denver. So, in reality, Minnesota has a three point lead on both DU and UMD to win the MacNaughton. With just four games left to play, Minnesota can clinch the WCHA title with three wins. That may be a challenge, though, as they travel to Omaha to take on the UNO Mavericks next weekend. The Mavs are coming off a road split at Colorado College, and are in a three-way tie for fourth place in the league with Colorado College and North Dakota. They will be fighting for points and for home ice, so don't expect Nebraska-Omaha to lay down and surrender to Minnesota.