Sometimes it takes one small play to break out of pattern. That happened for the University of Minnesota tonight and for the first time since December 30th against Niagara, the Gophers won a Friday night hockey game.
Jake Hansen and Nick Bjugstad scored for Minnesota (18-9-1, 14-5-0 WCHA) and the third-ranked Gophers defeated St. Cloud State (10-13-4, 7-9-3 WCHA) 2-1 at Mariucci Arena.
"It was a hard-fought game like they all are in the second half," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. "It doesn't matter how you win. We just needed to get the two points."
For most of the first period, however, it looked like the Minnesota that has gone 2-7 in their last nine Friday night games was back. The Gophers struggled early on, looking slow and getting beat to the puck by St. Cloud State to the point where returning Huskies goaltender Mike Lee, playing his first game since October 22nd, could have read a book.
Minnesota only put one shot on net in the first ten minutes while SCSU made senior goalie Kent Patterson work hard. His biggest save, a diving sprawl to his left on a 2 on 1 chance by David Eddy, kept the game scoreless.
Things started to turn around for Minnesota about a minute later when a pinch in by Nate Schmidt that sprung an opportunity for Travis Boyd. He was unable to do anything but it was the play that gave Minnesota momentum and they began to create more opportunities against Lee, who made 24 saves in Friday's game. Eventually Jake Hansen was rewarded on a 2 on 1 of his own with Erik Haula and with 6:34 left in the first period scored his first goal since December 30th (coincidentally the last time that line has scored an even-strength goal).
The goal was reviewed after it went off of Hansen's shin past Lee but was eventually ruled in Minnesota's favor for a 1-0 lead.
"I was a little nervous," said Hansen about the review. Obviously it took a while. I didn't know what they were looking for like goalie interference or if I kicked it in."
St. Cloud State was able to tie things up early in the second period. After Tom Serratore was called for cross-checking in the Huskies' offensive zone 2:42 into the period, captain Ben Hanowski scored his 13th goal of the season on a laser that beat Patterson 95 seconds later.This came a few seconds after a previous Hanowski shot hit the post.
"Kent played really good," said Nick Bjugstad after the game. "[St. Cloud State] only had 13 shots but he made some great saves."
However that was the only shot on goal St. Cloud State had for most of the period and Patterson, who made 12 saves Friday, became the one who didn't have to do much. It helped that Minnesota once again found their focus on blocking shots and forcing the Huskies to really work to create scoring chances when not spending 90 seconds trapped in their own zone.
"That (blocking shots) is something we've gotten away from what worked in the first eleven games of the year," said Hansen.
Fittingly, it was a defensive play by freshman Kyle Rau that led to the winning goal. Rau was able to take advantage of the turnover and find a streaking Jake Hansen to create a 2 on 1 with Bjugstad. The sophomore buried Hansen's pass for his 21st goal of the season and give the Gophers a 2-1 lead with 8:11 left in the second period.
"[Lee] had good vision tonight," said St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko. "It was the two turnovers, the two odd-man rushes which was the difference tonight. I thought the key (for Minnesota) was all the shots blocked."
The third period was fairly low key with neither team peppering the other after St. Cloud State forward Travis Novak went down awkwardly into the boards and had to be helped off the ice. The extent of the injury was not known following the game, only that it was a "lower body injury." The Huskies were already shorthanded this weekend and never found a groove afterwards despite being down by one.
St. Cloud State was only able to get one shot on goal in the final twenty minutes in spite of Minnesota taking two late penalties. The Gophers had a chance to take a 3-1 lead late in the game but Nate Condon's attempt for a fifth shorthanded goal (which would have tied Austin Smith of Colgate for the most in college hockey) hit the post with 1:20 left. The Huskies pulled their goalie but for the second consecutive game (and third with the same score), Minnesota was able to hold on for a 2-1 win.
In the end, it wasn't the prettiest game Minnesota played this season - in fact it felt more like a road win - but they were able to return to some of the things which helped propel them to nine wins in their first ten games.
"We need to do those little things. We did some of those tonight and need to do more of those tomorrow," said Lucia.
With the second line returning to the score sheet, players giving up their bodies to block shots and the team finding a way to win a game on Friday tonight was a good effort from the Gophers. Things started to take off once they did the little things, including Schmidt's effort to pinch in halfway through the first, it made Minnesota that much tougher to beat.
Minnesota goes for the sweep Saturday as they finish up their home-and-home series with St. Cloud State finish up at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North and streamed on 95.3 Praise FM.
-The 3 stars tonight were 1) Jake Hansen 2) Nick Bjugstad and 3) Ben Hanowski
-Attendance was 10,088 Friday, marking the fourth consecutive sellout at Mariucci Arena this season.
-Following the game, St. Cloud State head coach Motzko said that freshman Ryan Faragher will likely start Saturday's game after sitting for Lee Friday.