What a difference a week makes.
After a lackluster performance last weekend being swept by Denver, the University of Minnesota made one of the hottest teams in the WCHA look mortal. Zach Budish scored twice for the Gophers and Nick Bjugstad added another as 7th-ranked Minnesota (20-11-1, 16-7-0 WCHA) defeated Bemidji State (15-13-3, 9-11-3 WCHA) 3-0 Friday night. Kent Patterson made 13 saves for his Gopher single-season record seventh shutout of the year.
"We watched a lot of video of [Bemidji] and knew what they brought to the table," said Bjugstad after the game. "It helped that we had our legs."
The win vaulted Minnesota five places in the Pairwise rankings from 14th to 9th.
The Gophers had trouble getting off to a good start Friday night in Denver, a common theme in the first period of a weekend, but came out strong tonight. Minnesota only needed sixty seconds to get on the board against the Beavers as Budish was able to tip in a slap shot by Mark Alt past goalie Dan Bakala.
"Overall [getting off to a fast start] was something we talked about," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "That was good from the drop of the puck. "
Minnesota never let up after that, out-shooting Bemidji State 14-2 in the first period. Both goalies made magnificent saves but a stray rebound found its way to an unguarded Budish to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead 9:13 into the game.
"Zach's a good player and I though he was very effective tonight," said Lucia. He added (and Budish confirmed) that the redshirt sophomore had been working on his cardio by coming in early the last 3 or 4 weeks. It's paid off for Budish because he has 4 goals in his last six games.
There was a scary moment in the first for Gopher fans as freshman Kyle Rau, returning from a one-game suspension, went head-first into the boards midway through the period. He was briefly taken to the locker room but returned moments later.
Minnesota did not let up and continued making the Beaver defense work in the second period. The Gophers had several opportunities denied by Bakala, who made 33 saves, before Aaron McLeod took a boarding penalty. Some beautiful tic-tac-toe passing on the ensuing power play by Erik Haula and Kyle Rau led to Nick Bjugstad getting his 22nd goal of the season in easy fashion.
"It was just one of those games," said Beaver head coach Tom Serratore. "I thought [Minnesota's] backcheck was unreal. That top line was something...we just couldn't contain them"
The closest Bemidji came to scoring was on a breakout pass late in the second period that saw Patterson making a diving save with his glove near the faceoff dot. It was reminiscent of a couple saves former Minnesota-Duluth goalie Alex Stalock made but the 9,975 at Mariucci Arena gave the Gopher goalie a standing ovation.
The Beavers held Minnesota scoreless in the third period but the damage was already done. Bakala kept them within reason by making a few great saves on Erik Haula, Kyle Rau and Tom Serratore but the Bemidji offense could not sustain any pressure. The Gophers outshot them 36-13 throughout the game and had more shots on goal than they attempted (35).
Overall, Friday's game was a complete 180 degree turn from the Denver series. This Gopher team was poised, aggressive in beating the Beavers to the majority of puck races, won face-offs, back-checked hard and most importantly did not take a single penalty for the first time all season.
"It's something we talked about. We took three penalties in the third period last weekend and that cost us a game," said Lucia.
Friday night was one of the best sixty minute performances Minnesota has had all season. Tonight was going to be a statement against a Bemidji team which went 4-1-1 in their last six games and swept Colorado College (who played the Gophers tough a few weeks back) handily. That Beaver team was not on the ice because they were made to look mortal and even out-matched.
The strongest endorsement , however, may have come from Bemidji's coach after the game. He made sure to compliment the Gophers at every turn but there's a difference between those words and this:
"They're strong, have great speed...to me [Friday night] they were a national championship caliber team. "
Again, what a difference a week makes.
Minnesota and Bemidji State play again at Mariucci Arena Saturday at 7 PM. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.