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Gophers Hockey: Michigan Tech hands Minnesota first loss of the season

Turnovers cost the Gophers in their WCHA opener Friday and Michigan Tech made Minnesota pay in a 5-3 win. Blake Pietila scored twice for the Huskies as Michigan Tech denied head coach Don Lucia his 600th win. Both teams play tomorrow.

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

One of Minnesota's strong points entering the season was their defense. All six defensemen from last season's Frozen Four run along with freshmen Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) and Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets) forced Gopher head coach Don Lucia to be creative in order to get them all in the lineup.

None of that mattered Friday night.

Michigan Tech (2-1-0, 1-0-0 WCHA) toppled top-ranked Minnesota (2-1-0, 0-1-0 WCHA) 5-2 at home in the WCHA conference opener for both teams. Blake Pietila (New Jersey Devils) scored twice for the Huskies and along with Dennis Rix scored in a 22 second stretch during the first period. Pheonix Copely made 19 saves for his first collegiate win as Michigan Tech denied Lucia his 600th.

Nate Schmidt, Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) and Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals) scored for Minnesota in defeat.

One reason the Gophers were able to sweep Michigan State last weekend was their ability to come out and control the game in the first period. Tonight, however, Michigan Tech was the aggressor early on and took advantage of a defense that had trouble controlling the puck. After Minnesota goalie Michael Shibrowski saved a pair of odd-man chances, Alex Petan scored 3:32 into the game on a remarkable goal. The freshman took advantage of a Mark Alt (Carolina Hurricanes) turnover to create a partial breakaway, fell to his knees, got back up and beat Shibrowski high on his glove side.

Schmidt was able to tie the game on a 4x4 with his first goal of the season 9:13 into the game but that was as close as the Gophers got. With Brady Skjei in the penalty box, Pietila let a wrister go that found its way past a screened Shibrowski. 22 seconds later Rix followed up on another Alt turnover and made it 3-1 with 5:12 left in the first.

One positive for the Gophers Friday was the play of their top line who at times seemed to be the only ones creating opportunities. It paid off early in the second period when Ben Marshall (Detroit Red Wings) found a wide-open Bjugstad to Copely's right and the Panthers prospect scored his third goal in as many games. Once again, Michigan Tech failed to give up and after a stretch where the Huskies would not let Minnesota get the puck out of their own zone, Rix found Chad Pietila alone in front of Shibrowski who made it 4-2.

The goal was Shibrowski's last and ended a night which saw little defensive help yet Tech scored high glove side three times. Freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) came in relief and made 11 saves on 12 shots in 32 minutes; only allowing Blake Pietila's second goal with 1:33 left in the second.

At the end of the night, Michigan Tech was relentless with their forecheck, making some of the more consistent Gopher defenders have trouble and took advantage of defensive turnovers. They made it difficult for Minnesota to get through the neutral zone, shutting down its offense. Boyd added a late period goal to get the game within two but Minnesota spent most of the final twenty minutes trying to get things working for Saturday along with different defensive combinations.

For Minnesota, Friday was a reminder that playing on the road is no easy task in the WCHA and even early in the season there is no such thing as a gimme. Returning players and combinations that look good on paper need to do so on the ice if it is going to matter.

Most importantly for the Gophers, Friday night was one not worth repeating.

Minnesota and Michigan Tech play again tomorrow night at 6 p.m. CT on Fox Sports North. For more University of Minnesota coverage, check out The Daily Gopher. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.