Saturday's game wasn't pretty at times but the end result was one which Gopher fans can enjoy.
Despite being out-shot 29-19 and playing the final twenty minutes without leading goal scorer Nick Bjugstad, the University of Minnesota (23-11-1, 19-7-0 WCHA) got the job done against the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (14-14-6, 11-10-5 WCHA) and won 3-2 for their 8th sweep of the season.
Kyle Rau scored twice and Mark Alt added another for Minnesota, who withstood a late UNO charge in the final ten minutes to earn their fourth straight victory. Brent Gwidt and Matt White scored for the Mavericks in defeat.
Nebraska-Omaha looked to get off to a fast start after fading against the Gophers in the third period of Friday's game and did just that. They were able to get Minnesota on their toes throughout the first five minutes and peppered goalie Kent Patterson with shots. Tony Turgeon had a great chance which Patterson turned away before Gwint beat him on a cross-ice pass from Andrew Schmit to give the Mavericks a 1-0 lead 6:05 into the game.
Once again, penalties changed the course of the game. This time, however, the Gophers were the beneficiary and were able to get 3 first period power plays while Nebraska-Omaha had none. A 4x4 opportunity seconds after Gwint's goal saw defenseman Mark Alt skate past Andrej Sustr and tie the game 42 seconds later on his fifth goal of the season. Three minutes later Kyle Rau scored his first goal since February 10th on the power play to complete a dominant stretch for Minnesota.
Mavericks coach Dean Blais changed goalies after Rau's goal, bringing in senior John Faulkner for Ryan Massa. He wasn't at fault for either goal - although the second one went off his skate and in - but the switch brought new life for UNO.
The Gophers didn't have many offensive chances in the second period but they made them count. Rau nearly had a second goal in the opening minutes when a rebound off of a shorthanded breakaway chance looked like it was deflected in by a defenseman moments before he crashed into the net. The officials waived the goal off because of a lack of conclusive evidence. Despite that, Kyle bounced back and made sure a one-timer from Erik Haula counted at 9:20 of the period to give the Gophers a 3-1 lead heading in to the third period.
A scary moment for Gopher fans happened in the second period when sophomore forward Nick Bjugstad was hit from behind by Turgeon. Minnesota took advantage of the subsequent power play and Bjugstad was able to shake it off but was held out in the third period.
"I'll think he'll be fine," coach Don Lucia said to reporters after the game. "[Bjugstad] got dinged up a little bit. It was questionable whether he should come back in the third and we just made the decision at that point in time to look at the big picture. There's no sense risking anything for the last period of hockey this weekend."
Bjugstad's absence forced the Gophers to double-shift their centers and gave Nebraska-Omaha a chance to get back into the game. Josh Archibald looked great all night and had a couple opportunities to score that Patterson turned aside as part of his 27 saves. The senior goalie, however, was left out to dry when UNO leading scorer Matt While stole a lazy pass by Justin Holl and shot the puck through Patterson's legs with 9:21 remaining in the game.
It was the Mavericks' second shorthanded goal in as many nights.
Minnesota clamped down after that playing conservative hockey. While the team made a few defensive errors, they were able to withstand the effort by Nebraska-Omaha and take all four points this weekend.
With the win, the Gophers remain two points ahead of Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA race and are seventh in the Pairwise.
Overall, Saturday's game wasn't the performance Lucia and company wanted. The 19 shots by Minnesota were its lowest total since they had 16 October 15th against Minnesota-Duluth, a game which they also won. It's great to see the Gophers find ways to win, especially since they've blown a few games in spite of being the better team, however there are definitely some things which stand out from Saturday's game for the wrong reasons.
In spite of that, their depth continues to be a boon for any postseason chances and getting Kyle Rau back on the scoring track never hurts. The Bjugstad news sounds promising for next weekend as well but in the end, Minnesota can be happy that when things aren't perfect they continue to find ways to still win.
Next weekend Minnesota plays Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena Friday and Saturday. Both games start at 7:00 p.m. and will be aired on Fox Sports North Plus.