Hockey is a team effort and in a game Saturday which Minnesota was desperate for a win, it was the most unlikeliest of heroes who stepped up for the team.
Nico Sacchetti, a senior who has spent most of the season as a healthy scratch, scored the game-winning goal 5:16 into the second period as the Gophers overcame a slow start and an overturned goal to beat Colorado College 2-1 on Hockey Day Minnesota. With the win the Maroon and Gold re-took first place in the WCHA because Minnesota Duluth is playing non-conference Alabama-Huntsville this weekend.
"It's tough to see [injured Gopher senior] Nick Larson go down," said Sacchetti. "But we have a deep team and I have to take advantage of the opportunities."
Nate Condon also scored for Minnesota (16-9-1, 13-5-0 WCHA) while Jaden Schwartz scored his eighth goal of the year for Colorado College (14-9-1, 11-7-0 WCHA) in an losing effort.
For two teams averaging over 3.5 goals per game, Saturday's contest was defensive with both games this weekend featuring six goals in total. Once again, the Tigers' Josh Thorimbert, who made 35 saves, and Gophers' Kent Patterson, who made 19, shined but they were helped out by great defensive play. Both teams' top lines were held in check and Minnesota looked sluggish at times before Schwartz was finally able to break out and score with 4:58 left in the first.
The St. Louis Blues first-round pick was set up in front of Patterson on a pass behind the net from Jeff Collett and shot it over the Gopher goalie. While it was only the Tigers' third shot in fifteen minutes of play, they were given other opportunities with Minnesota not connecting passes and managing to have any type of flow.
"You know we haven't had that many starts like that," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia after the game.
It looked like that would continue before a late shorthanded goal by Condon tied the game at one 2:19 before the end of the period and finally woke the Gophers up. With Jake Parenteau in the box for cross-checking, Nate was able to find a gap with linemate Taylor Matson and Colorado College's Gabe Guentzel and Scott Winkler coming together and sniped a shot from the top of the top of the circle past Thorimbert.
"I was just trying to find a little hole and not hit Taylor Matson in the back," said Condon.
The goal was Condon's fourth shorthanded on the season and ninth overall. With that, he took over sole possession of second place in college hockey trailing only Austin Smith of Colgate's five goals shorthanded.
Minnesota came out of first intermission the hungrier team. Although Matson took the period's first penalty, the Gophers continued moving their feet and forcing Colorado College to take penalties. It marked a rough night for the Tigers' special teams, which went 0-4 tonight and 0-8 on the weekend.
"There was not a lot of room despite an Olympic sheet," said Colorado College head coach Scott Owens (Mariucci Arena is 15 feet wider than a NHL-regulation sheet). "That being said, I haven't seen our power play that out of sync in a couple years."
Along with Colorado College taking penalties, the Gophers started to crash the net more as they stayed composed. It paid off for Sacchetti who, of all people, was right in front of Thorimbert hacking away twice before burying the puck in the back of the net.
Condon almost added a second goal midway through the period and for a few minutes Minnesota lead 3-1. With 9:59 remaining in the second the sophomore was able to crash the net along with Matson and linemate Seth Ambroz and score. However, the goal was overturned after a lengthy review which determined Matson passed the puck with his hand to Condon and despite the puck bouncing off of goalie Josh Thorimbert, that did not constitute the Tigers regaining possession.
What could have been a letdown for the Gophers ended up fueling them throughout the rest of the second period and the game.
"That's what you worry about," said Lucia. "You're dominating the game but can't get the separation necessary."
Minnesota continued trying for that third goal but could not get another shot past Thorimbert. A few frenzies in front of the net were saved and a missed chance from a snakebittten Erik Haula ended up going wide but they spent most of the final period in the Colorado College zone. It was a solid effort and one of the best periods of the year with the Gophers out-shooting the Tigers 19-6.
"Friday was done with," said Condon. "We had to come out [tonight] and forget [what happened last night]."
Instead of sitting back and having four guys play defense, the Gophers were the aggressors getting multiple chances from a vicious forecheck. They also got great defense from all three pairings along with the line known more for scoring - the top line of Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish - shutting down the Tigers' top line of Jaden Schwartz, Rylan Schwartz and Jeff Collett. The Schwartz brothers only had two quality shots in the third period and both came on the one shift they were not matched up with Minnesota's top line.
"All in all I was pretty happy with how we played," said Owens. "I would have liked to come out with a point though.
Overall, it was a good win for a Minnesota hockey team in need of one. What makes Saturday's game more special is that first period aside, everyone on the team gave a great effort and were rewarded, none more than the fourth-liner Nico Sacchetti. Some players who were toiling in anonymity or hadn't played well lately showed why they wore the block "M" on their chest. Guys like Seth Ambroz, Justin Holl and Travis Boyd all shined during stretches of play without scoring and in the end a player who was scratched Friday night scored the game winner.
Colorado College showed why they are one of the WCHA's elite teams this weekend but when guys are playing hard and firing on all cylinders, Minnesota's depth is its biggest strength.
Minnesota returns to play Friday and Saturday against St. Cloud State in a home and home series. Friday's game is at Mariucci Arena and broadcast on BTN while Saturday's game is at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud. Both games start at 7 PM CST.