Hockey is a game of momentum and the Minnesota Golden Gophers presently have none.
Minnesota (15-7-1, 11-3-0 WCHA) dropped their second consecutive game, losing to Notre Dame (13-6-3, 8-3-3-0 CCHA) 4-3 Saturday night. Riley Sheehan led the Fighting Irish with 2 goals and an assist as an abysmal first period and sloppy play through portions of the game put the game out of reach despite a late Minnesota comeback.
The team is 6-6-1 since sweeping North Dakota November 4-5 and face a tough challenge next weekend against the same North Dakota team in Grand Forks.
An important key for the Gophers this season has been getting out to a fast start and setting the pace. While they showed signs of coming out strong in the first couple minutes, things changed for the worse when Notre Dame's Nick Larson (unrelated to the Minnesota player with the same name) picked up a five minute major and game misconduct for checking Kyle Rau from behind; one of three penalties the freshman drew tonight.
What should have been a golden opportunity for the Gophers instead gave the Fighting Irish momentum as they failed to get any offensive chances throughout the major.
"We didn't come out and play well in the first ten minutes," said sophomore forward Nick Bjugstad. "Our coaches always stress it."
It was a point head coach Don Lucia beat into his players for 15 minutes after the game. However, Notre Dame continued dominating play on the ice and made Minnesota goalie Kent Patterson make some outstanding saves to keep the game tied. Eventually though T.J. Tynan scored his eighth goal of the season on a Fighting Irish power play after Nick Larson (the Minnesota one) couldn't clear the puck in front of the net.
"We came out sloppy and didn't play Gopher hockey," said senior captain Taylor Matson. "[Notre Dame] played like we scouted."
How bad was the first period? The team was out-shot by Notre Dame 14-5 and had a total of nine shot attempts. Only one of those shots were below the dots, which is pathetic for a team which tends to score goals within 10-15 feet of the net. Minnesota couldn't find their rhythm or sustain any pressure and the Fighting Irish made one of the best offenses in college hockey look foolish.
The Gophers found some rhythm in the second period after Notre Dame's Jeff Costello went to the penalty box for slashing Kyle Rau. On the ensuing power play, they were able to bombard goalie Steven Summerhays, who finished the game with 31 saves, with three good chances before Taylor Matson scored on a rebound with six seconds left in the power play to tie the game at one.
However, that was the high point for Minnesota because the third-ranked Irish were able to regain momentum on a Seth Ambroz penalty and two Riley Sheahan goals five minutes later.. Sheahan scored his first on the ensuing power play when Taylor Matson misplayed the puck and added a shorthanded goal on a breakaway three minutes later to make it 3-1.
It was just part of an outstanding period for the Detroit Red Wings draft pick, who hit the post on an earlier breakaway and was robbed by Patterson for one of the his 26 saves.
Sheahan continued being noticed on the ice in the third period. He set up Jeff Costello for what ended up being the game-winning goal off of a faceoff win with 6:16 left in the game. The goal and 4-1 Notre Dame lead sent many of the 10,242 fans at Mariucci Arena heading home to beat the traffic.
Two late goals 31 seconds apart from Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish rewarded the faithful Gophers fans who stuck around for a wild final two minutes but in the end an incomplete effort wasn't enough and the better team won. Despite Bjugstad and Rau not being 100% healthy - both coach Lucia and Bjugstad mentioned the two will get the next few days to rest after playing six games in Alberta - it had no bearing on the rest of the offense or the numerous defensive breakdowns.
The question for Minnesota now has to be how can they rebound from adversity and turn things around in the second half of the season.
"Take [the last three minutes] as you want," said Matson. We have to go back to the drawing board and get back playing the Gopher hockey we were earlier in the season."
Whether that happens remains to be seen but one thing is for sure: any momentum from the first half of the season is gone. Minnesota needs to create some of their own because beginning next week, it's a new season.
Minnesota travels to Grand Forks next weekend for two games with the University of North Dakota. Friday's game is at 7:30 while Saturday's is at 7:00 PM. Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North and streamed on ESPN 1500.
Updating my earlier story on Jack Jablonski, the fans who attended tonight's game donated more than $7,700 to the Jack Jablonski fund. More importantly, there was some good news from Jack today as he moved his arms; a feat which was originally seen to be impossible.