For the first time in a month, the Gophers hockey team has won a Friday night game. It just wasn't pretty.
Minnesota (12-4-1, 9-2-0 WCHA) spent the majority of the first forty minutes stuck in neutral before a third period rally pushed the Gophers ahead of Minnesota State 4-2 in Friday's series opener. Erik Haula scored his ninth goal of the season on the power play 4:51 into the third period to put Minnesota ahead 3-2 and the Gophers never looked back.
"[Friday was] one of those nights where you have have to advantage of chances," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "Some night you have to find a way to win."
The Mavericks (3-11-1, 2-8-1 WCHA) played much better than their record showed behind the strength of freshman JP Lafontaine and senior goaltender Austin Lee's 26 saves. Although Lee and the Minnesota State defense shut down the Gophers' top line of Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish, the Maroon and Gold were able to buck a recent trend and score first.
Taylor Matson only needed 98 seconds to score his fourth goal of the season from just inside the right circle. Minnesota is 11-1 this season when scoring first, has been an issue in the last three Friday night losses, and controlled most of the first five minutes. However, the Mavericks gained back momentum when a soft shot at the blue line by Evan Mosey somehow found its way past Gophers goaltender Kent Patterson to tie the game at 1.
It was a rare gaffe from the senior goalie, who finished with 26 saves, and one which gave Minnesota State life.
The Mavericks have won five of the last eight games against the Gophers and they showed why in the second period. Other than Nick Larson giving Minnesota a 2-1 lead early in the period, Minnesota State was the better team and out-shot them 11-5.
"You could see early on it was going to be that type of game," Lucia said. "It was tight to the end."
Of course, having troubles in the second period has been a problem for the Gophers throughout their Friday slump and many of the mistakes made were self-inflicted. Minnesota took three penalties in the second period which were bad choices - including Sam Warning tripping a Maverick player in his own offensive zone - and gave the puck away on too many occasions.
After Patterson prevented Minnesota State freshman Max Gaede from scoring on an almost open net early in the period, the Mavericks eventually found their opening 9:28 into the second. With Warning in the box, JP Lafontaine tied the game at 2 right after Zach Palmquist was driven into Patterson and the net. Although the 9,542 fans in Mariucci made their displeasure known, the goal stood after a lengthy review.
It wasn't the only time the fans were upset with the referees, who were showered with boos as they exited, but given the Gophers' play in the second period they were in no position to be helping their cause after forty minutes.
However, Minnesota is as good in the third period as they are bad in the second. They have outscored their opponents 29-7 in the third period this season and Friday was no exception. Whether it is conditioning, patience or taking advantage of opportunities other teams don't, the Gophers know how to finish hockey games.
"We're a good third period team," said sophomore forward Erik Haula.
After surviving an early Minnesota State opportunitity in which Lafontaine shot wide after splitting two defenders on a power play, the Gophers took advantage of their fourth power play. With senior Michael Dorr (a former Gopher before transferring to Minnesota State) shooting high on a shorthanded opportunity, Minnesota came back down the ice where Haula gave the fifth-ranked Gophers the lead.
"On their penalty kill [Minnesota State] takes a lot of chances," Haula said. "It works both ways and creates more room for us."
Jake Hansen added an empty netter goal for Minnesota to complete the third-period surge.
In the end, the Gophers came out of Friday with another hard-fought win and two points to remain on top of the WCHA with a 9-2-0 record. More than that, this team once again turned it on in the third period and won their first game on Friday since November 4th against North Dakota. Stopping that streak was important despite the style; as Haula said, "it kind of looked like a boring game."
It's hard to go that far - although no one will mistake Friday's contest as a classic - but two points ends up counting the same regardless of excitement.