Whether it was the Friday night funk which has plagued Minnesota (19-10-1, 15-6-0 WCHA) throughout the season or the Denver Pioneers being kryptonite in the Don Lucia Era, tonight's 5-3 loss fit a pattern of Gopher hockey this season.
Five different players - Shawn Ostrow, Dustin Jackson, Nate Dewhurst, Jason Zucker and Chris Knowlton - scored for Denver (16-9-4, 11-6-4 WCHA) Friday night at Magness Arena. Nate Condon, Kyle Rau and Zach Budish scored for the Gophers but 31 saves by Sam Brittain and a sluggish opening twenty minutes doomed Minnesota.
The Gophers defense had been one of the strong points over the last month, not giving up more than two goals since a 4-3 loss to Notre Dame January 7th. Despite that, It only took 17 minutes for Denver to score three goals on senior goaltender Kent Patterson. After Nate Condon took advantage of a turnover in the neutral zone to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead nine minutes into the game, the Pioneers took over.
Out-shooting the Gophers 19-9 in the first period, it only took forty seconds for Ostrow to tie the game on a rebound which failed to be cleared out from in front of the net. Three minutes later Dustin Jackson gave Denver the lead off of a faceoff which hit defenseman Mark Alt and bounced past Patterson. Nate Dewhurst then went top-shelf to complete the three-goal first period.
The Pioneers have a lot of firepower on their top two lines with Drew Shore, Jason Zucker, Nick Shore and Luke Salazzar but all three goals were scored by the third line outworking the Minnesota defense.
Kyle Rau got the Gophers within one 1:56 into the second period to make it 3-2. His goal, assisted by Zach Budish and Nick Bjugstad, came from the crease on a Minnesota power play and looked to get the team back into the game. Unfortunately it was as close as the Gophers ever got because two minutes later Jason Zucker scored his own power play goal for Denver. Zucker's shot came from an extremely sharp angle to Patterson's left and was reminicsent to the goal Ben Hanowski scored in Minnesota's previous game.
Chris Knowlton and Budish also scored in the period to give Denver a 5-3 lead heading into the final twenty minutes. Their goals, however, were overshadowed by Kyle Rau launching himself into Zucker and leaving the Minnesota Wild draft pick motionless on the ice for several minutes. Zucker was eventually able to stand up and get helped off the ice to be looked at. He did not return.
Rau was given a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct.
The penalty and aftermath changed things for the Gophers. Although Minnesota killed all five minutes of the major, Knowlton scored seconds later. Budish matched it, tipping in a Seth Helgeson shot. The goal was reviewed for close to five minutes but eventually ruled good.
Minnesota looked their best in the third period but it was too little, too late for the WCHA leaders. Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain looked shaky at times - he nearly got beat by a Ben Marshall shot which hit the post - being peppered by Gopher shots. Despite that, he turned away everything in the final twenty minutes and was every bit the goaltender he was before having knee surgery.
Overall, it was far from an ideal performance for the Gophers.They had some positives like the play of Nate Condon (who continues to shine on the penalty kill and twice nearly scored his fifth shorthanded goal) and the third period but the Pioneers did a great job of taking advantage of their mistakes. Denver was able to push the pace, Minnesota's goaltending and defense looked absolutely shaky at times and the team could not give themselves a chance to win. That's been key to the Gophers when they've started slow in past games and the Pioneers deserve credit for frustrating them en route to handing the Maroon and Gold only their second loss of more than one goal.
The Pioneers never let Minnesota get settled, even in the third period, and while the Gophers are known for their scoring depth Denver one-upped them. They scored five goals from players not named Shore and were able to overcome the loss of Zucker. Not many teams can say the same and on a night which the nation saw them, Minnesota once again failed to deliver against their kryptonite.
Minnesota and Denver play again Saturday at 8 PM CT in Denver, Colorado. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus.