One of the things which Minnesota stressed last night was the need to start strong. With three goals in the first twenty minutes, it's safe to say mission accomplished.
Despite two goals by Zach Lehrke, Minnesota (13-4-1, 10-2-0 WCHA) completed the weekend home sweep defeating Minnesota State (3-12-1, 2-9-1 WCHA) 3-2 Saturday. The Gophers only needed 2:37 to get on the board after Seth Ambroz scored his third goal of the season. With Zach Lehrke in the penalty box for unsportsmanlike conduct, the freshman spent most of the ensuing two minutes camped in front of Mavericks goalie Austin Lee. That patience and second effort was rewarded with his first goal since the opening game of the season.
"It felt like getting a monkey off my back" said Ambroz
Linemate Taylor Matson added his second goal this weekend six minutes later as the senior captain fired a wrist shot over Lee's right shoulder to make it 2-0 Minnesota. Kyle Rau tacked on his 11th goal of the season with 1:19 left after receiving a cross-ice pass from Mark Alt on the doorstep.
Minnesota State had their own chances to keep pace but Gophers goaltender Kent Patterson turned away an early Justin Jokinen breakaway en route to 26 saves. It was one of five breakaway chances the Mavericks missed throughout the weekend, which Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting harped on after the game.
Besides breakaways, penalties became a major story in Saturday's game. The referees called 22 penalties between the two teams, which forced long stretches of special teams play.
"Special teams is huge...it's something which we practice a lot," said Matson.
Although the Mavericks went scoreless on three power play opportunities in the first period, their persistence was rewarded on the fourth. With Minnesota's Justin Holl in the box for cross-checking, Lehrke was able to sneak a slow shot past a couple defenders and Patterson to cut the lead to 3-1.
The stretches of penalty killing seemed to get to Minnesota as the night went on, but they still had their chances and out-shot the Mavericks 16-10 in the second period. Both Nate Schmidt and Kyle Rau each hit the post (or in Rau's case, both posts and a behind the back save by Lee) in the middle frame and Nate Condon missed an open net in the closing seconds of the second period buckled down defensively.
"We knew [Minnesota State] would come out physical," said Ambroz. "[It was something] that we needed to match."
The Mavericks cut into Minnesota's lead with Lehrke's second goal 4 minutes into the third period. With Kyle Rau in the box for a very questionable roughing penalty (one of many calls the announced crowd of 9,710 at Mariucci Arena did not agree with) and Jake Hansen sitting next to him, Minnesota State was able to get movement on the 90 second 5x3 and made it into a 3-2 game. Despite a few late charges, that was as close as they got as the Minnesota defense and special teams made the difference.
Like Friday, tonight's game was not pretty at times but the Gophers were able to get the job done. The penalties took them out of their first period rhythm but other factors like going 7-9 on the penalty kill ended up making a difference.
"We took two wins at home which is important to us," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "Now we need to go back to work on Monday."
Although the top three teams in the USCHO poll lost at least once this weekend - meaning the Gophers should move up into one of the top two spots - it is still too early in the season to rest on their laurels. Tonight's opening twenty minutes could be next week's penalty kill, but the fact that the team recognizes there is work to be done is encouraging to see.
Minnesota hosts Michigan Tech next weekend at Mariucci Arena. Friday's game is at 7 PM Central while Saturday's game starts at 8 PM. Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.
SB Nation Minnesota's 3 Stars:
1. Taylor Matson UMN (1 goal, 1 assist)
2. Zach Lehrke MSU-M (2 goals)
3. Seth Ambroz UMN (1 goal, 1 assist)