One of the questions entering this weekend for the University of Minnesota was who would step up in scoring without sophomore Nick Bjugstad (16 goals, 27 points) and Kyle Rau (12 goals, 22 points). After tonight's 5-1 win over Niagara (5-6-6, 4-2-5 Atlantic Hockey), the question might as well have been "who wasn't going to step up?"
Five different players scored goals for the Golden Gophers (15-5-1, 11-3-0 WCHA), led by senior forward Jake Hansen's goal and two assists, and the team bucked a trend of starting slow on Friday with their best opening performance since a 2-0 win against North Dakota November 4th.
They now face off against Northeastern, who defeated Princeton 4-3 in a shootout, for the Mariucci Classic title tomorrow.
"We wanted to start the second half right," said sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt, whose two assists tonight gave him a nation-leading 22. "That was the biggest focus and we have to win Friday night and take it one period at a time."
That's exactly what they did. Instead of their normal slow Friday start, second-ranked Minnesota was ready to play Niagara in their first game in nearly three weeks. Two goals in the first 3:08 by Nick Larson and Jake Hansen gave the team a lead they would not let go.
"Our coaches keep talking about non-conference games," said Hansen. "We're [4-2-1]...and need to not throw [non-conference] games away."
Both first period goals were the product of hard work and getting bodies in front of the net for rebounds off of Purple Eagles goalie Cody Campbell. Larson scored off a shot from Jake Parenteau - his first point in 26 collegiate games -1:58 into the game while Hansen was in nearly the same place 68 seconds later. Minnesota continued their domination, out-shooting Niagara 17-7 in the first period, and they had more opportunities within 10 feet of Campbell, who made 27 saves, than the Purple Eagles had in total.
Niagara was able to create opportunities to get within one for most of the second period but could not find a way to get past Gophers goalie Kent Patterson despite a blown line change and the senior goaltender misplaying a lob pass that left an open net.
Erik Haula, however, put the game out of reach for the Purple Eagles late in the second period with the hustle and second effort that was missing on past Fridays. Haula batted his own rebound of a Nate Schmidt shot past Campbell for his tenth goal of the season.
"We weren't worried [about losing Rau and Bjugstad] because we had guys stepping up," said Haula after the game.
If that was not enough, Justin Holl scored his third goal of the season with28.1 seconds left in the second period to make it 4-0 Minnesota. With no one standing between him and the goalie, Holl pinched in and one-timed a cross-ice pass by Jake Hansen to drive the dagger into Niagara's chances.
Colby Droust replaced Campbell as the Purple Eagles' goalie in the beginning of the third which did not change their fortune other than finally breaking Patterson's bid for his seventh shutout of the season 2:23 into the final frame. The Gophers goalie, who made 20 saves, was unable to stop a wrister from Tyler Matthews after Minnesota finished killing a penalty and the junior forward scored his first collegiate goal in 59 games to make the score 4-1.
The lone top line player, Zach Budish, sent the crowd home happy with Culver's after scoring his fifth goal tapping in the result of great puck movement with 6:39 left in the game. A late goal by Taylor Matson three minutes later would have made it 6-1 but it waived off after a lengthy delay because of Seth Ambroz being in the crease.
Regradless, Minnesota now faces off against a Northeastern team which has not lost in its last seven games.
"[Northeastern] swept Notre Dame at home, they beat Michigan in their own rink," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "They're a very confident team."
The Gophers, meanwhile, look to build some confidence of their own. However, they will have to do it without forward Tom Serratore. The sophomore forward left after the first period of tonight's game, forcing the team to play with 11 forwards. Coach Lucia would not give any information on Serratore's status but it's safe to say he's not 100%.
In the end, however, Minnesota rose to the occasion without Nick Bjugstad or Kyle Rau. With five different players scoring, the defense coming within an overturned goal of having all six defensemen having points and playing one of their better defensive efforts, the Golden Gophers as a team were able to step up when needed.
Minnesota faces Northeastern tomorrow at 6 PM for the Mariucci Classic Championship. The game will not be televised but can be listened to on ESPN 1500. Before that, Niagara and Princeton duke it out for the third place trophy at 3 PM. For more Gophers coverage, be sure to check out The Daily Gopher and follow me on Twitter @gopherstate.