Nathan Condon celebrating a Gophers goal (photo courtesy of Paul Rovnak)

Gophers Hockey: Minnesota Wins 6-2; Splits Series With Michigan Tech

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Gophers Hockey: Minnesota Wins 6-2 In A "Fighting" Finish To First Half

Two things became clear tonight at Mariucci Arena. First, Michigan Tech is a team which wants to prove to the WCHA that this year's team is not the doormat that the Huskies have been the last decade. Secondly, don't get the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers angry in the third period. They will make teams pay in more ways than one.

Minnesota (14-5-1, 11-3-0 WCHA) defeated Michigan Tech  (9-8-1, 6-7-1) 6-2 Saturday on the strength of four 3rd period goals. The Gophers split their two game series with the Huskies and ended the first half of the season on a winning note.

""[Winning tonight's game] was huge, said senior Joey Miller. "We know you can't the conference in the first half of the season but we can lose it." 

Unlike Friday, the Gophers came out strong Saturday. They spent almost the entire first 8 minutes in the Huskies zone creating chance after chance - including a missed shot at an open net by Christian Isackson - but ended the first period tied at one with Michigan Tech.

It was not until Kyle Rau found himself alone in front of Michigan Tech goalie Josh Robinson that the Maroon and Gold were able to get on the board 7:37 into the game. At that point Michigan Tech was being out-shot 7-0 and needed to use its timeout to regroup. 

The move seemed to pay off when the Huskies tied the game at 1 nine minutes later. In the dying seconds of a Seth Ambroz penalty, Milos Gordic's shot broke the stick of Minnesota defenseman Blake Thompson and trickled over to Jordan Baker who scored his fourth goal of the season.

Along with an ongoing count of broken sticks, the second period was taken over by special teams. With neither team able to get anything going even strength, Jake Hansen gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead when the senior tipped an Erik Haula shot on the power play for his 7th goal of the season. Hansen's goal ended up being the only goal of the period but Michigan Tech was given a five minute major with 2:42 left. Gophers defenseman Blake Thompson was called for a major penalty and game misconduct after hitting a Michigan Tech player in the head in front of the Huskies bench.

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia was behind Thompson, calling it his best game before the penalty. However it was a rough night for the freshman, who was playing his first game since taking three penalties in a 5-4 loss to Vermont.

Although Minnesota killed the first part of the five minute major before the period ended, Daniel Sova tied the game at 2 only 86 seconds into the final period. The sophomore scored his second goal of the season on a slap shot on the point and the momentum once again seemed to shift in the Huskies' favor. Michigan Tech had already won the night before and a sweep was within grasp.

Then the Gophers went into sixth gear.

Four goals in fifteen minutes turned what looked to be a tight match-up for forty minutes into a full-fledged rout. Mark Alt started the scoring 3:30 into the third period when he went low into the left circle and shot a cannon past Robinson to make it 3-2 Minnesota.

"Hey it worked for [Bjugstad]," said Alt.  "Why not me too?"

That goal gave the Gophers the spark they needed and it was off to the races for the Maroon and Gold. Both goalies gave up plenty of rebounds tonight and Minnesota finally was able to take advantage of that in the third period to give them separation.

Nick Bjugstad was the first when he took the rebound from a Nate Schmidt shot and broke his four-game goalless skid. Joey Miller, who found out this morning he was playing in his first game all season, got the crowd of 9,771 at Mariucci Arena on their feet in a standing ovation when he tipped in a shot to make it 5-2.  Finally, Hansen came out of a scrum with his second goal of the night  to give Minnesota a 6-2 lead with 1:46 left in the game.

"It was key that our big players stepped up," said Miller.

Despite giving up four goals, Michigan Tech wanted to make a statement that they were not the pushovers of yesteryear and they did it through physical play. The Huskies were assessed 33 minutes in penalties in the last 2:19 and included three sets of fights. It escalated to the point where Lucia and a Michigan Tech assistant were yelling at each other at close range; an achievement which the student rewarded the Gophers coach with a chant of "Don Lucia."

When asked about the last five minutes, the Minnesota players were fine with it - including Miller and Alt who both "thought it was awesome" - but Lucia stated that it was "not how you wanted the game to finish."

Regardless, Minnesota won with better play than Friday; this was a game they deserved. The Gopher hockey team made better passes, they battled hard in the corners, didn't take many bad penalties and most of all got in front of rebounds. As much as Michigan Tech wanted to prove to the rest of the WCHA that they are a different team, Saturday night Minnesota showed what they are capable of at their best.

At least for one game.

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Gophers Hockey: Olson's OT Goal Hands Minnesota First Home WCHA Loss

With the way the night was going, it was becoming apparent that Friday's game was going to be won or lost by the goalies. Unfortunately for the 9,451 Gophers fans at Mariucci Arena, Josh Robinson was the better goalie. The senior for Michigan Tech (9-7-1, 6-6-1 WCHA) made 34 saves and the Huskies beat the second-ranked Gophers 3-2 in overtime on a goal from captain Brett Olson thirty-three seconds into the extra period. 

"I thought Robinson had a great game tonight," said an unhappy Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.

Both teams started slow until Mark Alt got the Gophers on the board first 10:22 into the game. The sophomore defenseman scored his third goal of the year with a shot from the blue line that went off a Michigan Tech defender past Robinson.  Minnesota (13-5-1, 10-3-0 WCHA) picked things up but a pass by Blake Pietila hit a Gophers' skate in front of the net and trickled past Kent Pattesron to tie the game at 1.

Fluke goal or not, Michigan Tech hung in with the second-ranked Gopher hockey team. Minnesota entered Friday 12-1 when scoring first and the Huskies were able to keep getting chances and shots on Patterson, who made 23 saves. That included a slap shot by David Johnstone which hit the senior goaltender flush in the mask.

Neither team scored in the second period as Minnesota could not get past Robinson. This was despite them having seven shot attempts in front of the crease and an almost four minute power play between two Huskies penalties where the best opportunity came shorthanded from Michigan Tech sophomore Ryan Furne.

"Tonight was rough, said Alt. "It's happened to us before that we come out slow on Friday."

At one point the shots were 9-2 for the Gophers in the second period - they ended up out-shooting the Huskies 14-5 - but it was Michigan Tech who took the lead 1:07 into the third on a Jacob Johnstone power play goal which found its way past Patterson.

After that point, defense took over. Minnesota's defense never seemed to click Friday and Coach Lucia tried a couple different pairings to shake things up. On the Michigan Tech end, the team continued having four players back on the blue line and making the Gophers beat them through speed. Minnesota's speed didn't work but their slap shots did as one from the blue line by junior defenseman Seth Helgeson tied the game at 2 with 13:03 left,

Unfortunately for Helgeson, his high was matched by the low of getting beat on the game-winning goal. With both goalies standing tall and denying breakaways and odd-man rushes, sixty minutes were not enough. Thirty-three seconds into overtime, Brett Olson happened to be "in the right place at the the right time" and won a foot race with the Minnesota defenseman. It ended with him shooting the puck between Patterson's legs and Michigan Tech snapped the Gophers goalie's four-game winning streak against the Huskies.

"I did what I was supposed to do," said Helgeson after the game. "Maybe I could have had a different stick position.

Regardless, defense and sloppy play doomed Minnesota, who are now tied for first in the WCHA with Minnesota Duluth, as Michigan Tech was the better overall team Friday Although Robinson played well and made the difference, it was the Huskies team which handed the Gophers their first WCHA home loss.

"Any time we can play [Minnesota] and get a win it's good," said Olson. "We have to go back and regroup at the hotel [for Saturday]. We know what type of team they are. There's a reason they are at the top of the WCHA." 

For Minnesota's sake, they better know that reason tomorrow.

Minnesota and Michigan Tech finish their two-game series at Mariucci Arena tomorrow night. The game starts at 8 PM and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North's Alternate Channel.

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