On the night which saw the 2002 University of Minnesota National Championship team honored at Mariucci - a team which lives in infamy for those who grow up wanting to wear the Maroon and Gold - could it be any more fitting to see the number one star awarded to the one international Gopher?
Erik Haula, a native of Pori, Finland, scored two goals for Minnesota (21-11-1, 17-7-0 WCHA) Saturday night as the Gophers beat Bemidji State (15-14-3, 9-12-3 WCHA) 4-1 and swept the two-game series. Jake Hansen and Seth Ambroz also scored with Kent Patterson making 21 saves in a winning effort.
Although he didn't grow up in the Gopher State like national title game-winning goal scorer (and present assistant coach) Grant Potulny, Haula was aware of its impact.
"I probably watched [the 2002 National Championship video] at least ten times with one of my teammates at Shattuck [St. Mary]," said Haula after the game.
Minnesota wasted no time getting on the scoreboard for the third straight game. After Jake Hansen won a puck battle to keep it in the offensive zone, he found a wide open Haula all alone in front of Beaver goalie Dan Bakala 1:17 into the game for his 13th goal of the season.
"We played a good game last night and knew they would come out strong. We just had to do it and [the early goal] was huge," Haula said.
Bemidji did respond despite being out-shot 11-4 in the first period and made the most out of their opportunities. Patterson was challenged early and after Nick Bjugstad took the Gophers' first penalty of the weekend 15:51 into Saturday's game, he finally met his match. On the power play Brad Hunt unleashed a bullet of a slap shot and tied the game with 2:46 remaining in the period.
"It was a great shot," said Patterson when asked about Hunt's goal. "I have to give him credit. It went over on my glove side and was a mental lapse on my end."
Minnesota was slightly sluggish in the last half of the first, laying up on opportunities and having a string of communication errors on the blue line. They came out better in the second and Hansen was able to put the Gophers on top of the Beavers for good 2:05 into the second period after tipping in a Justin Holl shot.
Erik Haula added his second goal of the night five minutes later on the power play. In a play similar to the third goal last night by Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau (who also had the primary assist on Bjugstad's goal) one-timed the puck to Haula in a tic-tac-toe power play goal to give Minnesota a 3-1 lead.
The rest of the second period saw Patterson shine against some tough shots by the Beavers. The senior goaltender was helped out by the post once but also shined in a pair of tough right-to-left saves. Jake Hansen had a late chance to score his second when Haula found him on a breakaway but Bakala kept the game at 3-1 after 40 minutes.
Hansen and Haula's play was a departure from Friday night being dominated by Rau, Bjugstad and Zach Budish's two goals and went to show the depth of the Gophers at their best. Any line at any time is able to step up with six players having ten or more goals.
Minnesota coasted through the final period and were out-shot for the first time this weekend 9-8. However, they did get some great play from both the defense - which looked as good as it had all weekend - along with the fourth line of Tom Serratore, Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz. They were physical, aggressive, weren't afraid to dangle the puck and gave the Gophers defense the energy needed to withstand a final stand from Bemidji. It was only fitting then that Ambroz was able to cap the night off with his fifth goal of the year on an empty netter.
"We had a game plan coming into this weekend," said Patterson. "After Denver, we woke up the next morning and had to brush it off."
Despite being swept, the Beavers were able to give Minnesota fits and played much better Saturday night than the score indicated.
"Last night was a tough night for us. You saw it, I saw it. All you can ask for is to lay it on the ice and I thought we did that.," said Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore
The win, coupled with Denver losing to Wisconsin 6-2 and Minnesota Duluth tying 4-4 with Minnesota State, put the Gophers 2 points ahead of the Bulldogs in the WCHA race with two weekends left to play. They also moved up to 8th in the Pairwise Rankings after beginning the weekend in 14th and the last team automatically in.
Minnesota travels to Nebraska-Omaha next weekend for two games Friday and Saturday. Friday's game starts at 7:30 PM and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus while Satuday's rematch will be broadcast on Fox Sport North's main channel at 7 PM.