With UMD charging hard down the stretch to give themselves a chance at the WCHA title, the Gophers needed to grab four points in Omaha last weekend in order to maintain their two point lead in the standings. Minnesota did just that, winning Saturday by a 3-2 count to sweep the weekend series.
Saturday 2/24/12: 3-2 Gopher Win
Minnesota was actually the worse of the two teams immediately after the puck dropped to open the period. It was clear that Dean Blais had his team fired up and ready to play against his alma mater. In fact, the Mavericks jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on a Brent Gwidt goal at 6:05 of the first. However, just 41 seconds later Mark Alt would draw the Gophers even. The rangy Alt streaked down the left wing with the puck, shielding it with his body as he started to cut towards the net. Alt let a backhand shot go that snuck between UNO goalie Ryan Massa's arm and his body, trickling through and into the net. Although they were outshot and outplayed in the first period, Minnesota did take advantage of their opportunities better than Omaha did. A powerplay near the midway mark of the period was the perfect chance for Kyle Rau to strike. Rau got the puck at the doorstep to Massa's left, and fired it into the goaltender's left pad. However, the puck popped back to Rau, and as he was being hauled down by the Maverick defenseman he was able to fire the puck from behind the goal line off of Massa's skate and into the net. There was no more scoring in the period.
The Gophers opened the second period up one goal, and they would soon add to that lead with another Rau powerplay tally. This time, Erik Haula completed a beautiful cross-ice pass that found Rau all alone with an open net to shoot at, and he did not miss. Rau's second goal of the game and 16th of the season came at 9:24 of the second period and would prove to be the game winner.
Although there was no more scoring in the period, perhaps one of the more significant moments of the entire season occurred just prior to the Rau goal. The penalty that UNO's Tony Turgeon took was a two-minute boarding call, but the hit was an awkward one that sent the Gophers' Nick Bjugstad crashing facemask-first into the boards. Bjugstad skated a few shifts after the hit in the second period, but he did not return to the ice in the third and has been listed as day-to-day.
Minnesota's superior conditioning saved the day in the third period, but it was not without drama. A Justin Holl turnover on a Minnesota power play resulted in a Matt White breakaway chance, and White buried the puck by sliding it through Kent Patterson's five-hole. The goal brought the game to a 3-2 score, but that is where the score would remain as the clock ticked all the way down and the Gophers were able to win two HUGE road games against a good Nebraska-Omaha team.
With the four points, Minnesota clinched at worst the #2 overall seed in the WCHA playoffs. Finishing in the top two is of utmost importance, since the first two teams get a bye from the Thursday matchups at the Final Five, while #3 plays #6 and #4 plays #5. The Gophers can clinch a share of the MacNaughton cup with either a win or a UMD loss. Minnesota's magic number to win the league outright is three - any points won by the Gophers or lost by UMD count towards this number.
The Gophers face a Wisconsin team that is coming off a road sweep of Bemidji - their second and third road wins all year. The Badgers have had a rough go of it this season, with their first line of Mark Zengerle, Tyler Barnes and Michael Mersch along with junior defenseman Justin Schultz being their only real threats on offense. The usually strong Badger defense/goaltending tandem has had it tough this year, as Wisconsin graduated two senior keepers last season and are relying on freshmen Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson to carry the load.
Hang that banner, boys!