With the year the Twin Cities sports and collegiate teams have had, it’s that much nicer to see one of them at the top of the standings.
Despite having their first four WCHA games on the road, Minnesota has won all four and the maroon and gold have been rewarded with sole possession of first place.The latest Gophers hockey victory, a 3-1 win over Alaska-Anchorage (3-4-1, 0-4-0 WCHA) Saturday night, was close as Minnesota (7-1-0, 4-0-0 WCHA) held onto an early lead and survived a late Seawolves charge.
The eighth-ranked Gophers dominated the opening period as they out-shot Anchorage 20-4. Goaltender Kent Patterson could have taken a nap during stretches as the team – especially the Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish line- moved the puck at will in the Seawolves zone.
Budish was eventually rewarded with the game’s first goal 10:54 into the game as he buried home a Bjugstad pass. However, it was the only goal the Gophers could muster past Seawolves goaltender Rob Gunderson in the opening twenty minutes. Gunderson, who made 29 saves, stood on his head at times and kept Anchorage in the game.
The Seawolves were able to gain momentum in the second period due to self-inflicted penalties by Minnesota but Nate Condon scored 4:03 into the period to make it 2-0 Gophers on the team’s first shorthanded goal this season. Condon created the opportunity through skill and hard work as he beat two Alaska-Anchorage defenders to the puck and roofed the puck past Gunderson on a breakaway for his fourth goal of the year.
However, Minnesota once again gave Alaska-Anchorage three power plays in a ten minute stretch and it ended up being a turning point in the game. The third penalty, a hooking call on sophomore Erik Haula, was the straw which broke the camel’s back as freshman Sam Mellor scored on the power play to make it 2-1 Minnesota.
Mellor’s goal broke Patterson’s 104:33 shutout streak, which dated back to Sebastian Stalberg’s goal on Sunday. It also gave the Seawolves confidence as they won the majority of the puck battles against a tired Gophers squad and put 14 shots on net.
Alaska-Anchorage’s grasp on the game continued in the third period as the Seawolves played their best hockey of the weekend and looked like the team which knocked Minnesota out of the postseason last year. They created odd-man rushes for themselves, cut down the Gophers’ cycling and puck movement and forced them to shoot from the perimeter.
Everything was going well for Anchorage, but unfortunately for them, the same was true for Patterson. Although the Seawolves only had nine shots on goal in the third period, each one counted and the junior goaltender came up big for Minnesota.
“I was expecting that with UAA,” Patterson said. “They’re a good team in the third period; especially in their own home.”
Alaska-Anchorage forward Mickey Spencer, who scored against Minnesota in March, came closest to tying the game with a tip-in midway through the third period. His deflection fooled the goal judge but ended up hitting the net and going wide
In the end, Kyle Rau was able to put the game out of reach for the Seawolves as the freshman forward scored on an empty net in the final minute for his seventh goal of the season. The 3-1 final gives Minnesota their third sweep of the season and while it wasn’t pretty at times, Gophers head coach Don Lucia summed it up best after the game:
“We’re 4-0 on the road in the WCHA and I think that’s the key stat above anything else.”
Next weekend, Minnesota returns home to Mariucci to face the twelfth-ranked and very
loved hated University of North Dakota. Friday’s game starts at 7 PM and is broadcast on Fox Sports North while Saturday’s game starts at 7:30 and is broadcast on the Big Ten Network.