This weekend changed all that.
The Golden Gophers (19-9-1 Overall, 15-5-0 WCHA) swept the weekend series with St. Cloud State to remain atop the league standings and further solidify their bid for an NCAA tournament spot. Minnesota dominated the play both nights, but were only able to squeak by the relentless Huskies by one goal each game.
Friday 1/27/11 - 2-1 Gopher Win
Friday night's game was notable for its slow start. Neither team looked good in the first ten minutes of action, and the play was punctuated by numerous offsides and icing whistles. Minnesota was able to shake off the rust and get on the board first when Jake Hansen took a two-on-one opportunity and made it into his own mini-breakaway, streaking down the right wing and getting past the defender before cutting towards the St. Cloud net. All alone in front, Hansen took a quick shot which Husky goaltender Mike Lee saved, but the ensuing rebound popped up in the air in the crease, where Hansen was able to bat the puck out of the air and into the net as his momentum carried him across the the face of the goal.
The goal was the only score of the period, and would give the Gophers the lead until 4:26 of the second, when St. Cloud's leading scorer Ben Hanowski beat Kent Patterson from the middle of the right faceoff dot to tie the game. The Gophers would strike back near the halfway mark of the game. Minnesota executed a near-perfect three-on-two rush to score at 11:49 of the period as Kyle Rau taking position in the center of the ice passed to his left to Jake Hansen, who fed a cross-ice pass through defenders to Nick Bjugstad on the right wing. Bjugstad, who leads the Gophers with 21 goals on the year, does not miss a wide open net very often, and he did not here, roofing the puck to give the Gophers the 2-1 lead which they would end the game with.
The third period was not without its excitement, as St. Cloud had four straight minutes of power play with just six minutes to play, but the Gopher team defense flexed is muscle right when it needed to, allowing only one shot on goal in the third to stifle the Huskies and change their narrow 2-1 lead into a 2-1 victory.
Three Gopher Stars of the Game
3. Seth Ambroz - 0G-0A-0P
The game seems to be starting to click for Ambroz. He's taking many fewer "stupid" penalties and is learning how to use his size to his advantage on the ice.
2. Nick Bjugstad - 1G-0A-1P
Bjugstad often imposes his will on games - he uses his size to beat other players on the ice, and has hand skills more becoming of a small sniper than a big bruiser. His 21st goal of the year was the game winner. Bjugstad also won 14 of the 17 faceoffs he took on Friday.
1. Jake Hansen - 1G-1A-2P
I'm not entirely sure who was wearing the #21 jersey on Friday night, but it was a different Jake Hansen than I've seen all year. This version of Jake Hansen skated hard, was aggressive on the puck and won the one-on-one puck battles. He completed more tape-to-tape passes on Friday than he has the rest of the year combined, and of course scored the first goal of the game on a great individual effort as well as making the thread-the-needle pass to Nick Bjugstad on the game-winner. Hansen was the best Gopher on the ice on Friday.
Saturday - 3-2 Gopher Win
Coming off their first Friday WCHA win since early December, the Gophers were smelling blood and looking for a sweep. Minnesota put together its best team defensive effort of the season giving up just 12 shots on goal throughout the game, but needed a late third-period goal in order to salvage a 3-2 win.
The Gophers dominated the first period, but it was St. Cloud that would skate away with a 1-0 lead as Ben Hanowski stuffed the puck under Kent Patterson and whacked away until it crossed the goal line at 13:54 of the first.
The Gophers would respond in the middle of the second period, as a Ben Marshall powerplay slapshot beat St. Cloud netminder Ryan Faragher and tied the game at one goal each. Minnesota took advantage of another powerplay opportunity later in the period, as Erik Haula scored his eleventh goal of the year and second goal since December 3rd on a one-time snapshot from the slot. Kyle Rau and Nate Schmidt assisted on the goal.
The Gophers dominated the remainder of the period, but another goofy St. Cloud goal tied the game sixty two seconds left. Ben Hanowski again lit the lamp for the Huskies, as a shot from behind the goal-line ricocheted off of Kent Patterson's skate and into the net. The teams were tied heading into the third period, despite the fact that had outshot the Huskies 28-9 and generally dominated the play.
The third offered more of the same, as Minnesota outshot St. Cloud 18-3 in the final frame but were still tied at two with less than two minutes left. For the second time in as many nights, the Gophers executed a near-perfect 3-on-2 with seventy nine seconds to go. Jake Hansen took the puck down the left wing before passing it to the trailing Justin Holl in the slot. Holl drew the defenders to him before passing the puck to the left for a wide-open Sam Warning. Warning one-timed a shot past Faragher to get the Gophers a 3-2 lead which they would hold onto (despite a St. Cloud hit post with their goalie pulled) for the weekend sweep.
Three Gopher Stars of the Game
3. Erik Haula - 1G-0A-1P
Haula broke out of his terrible slump by scoring the Gophers' second goal of the game. The team's second line was the best line on the ice all weekend. The Gophers need to get some more offense from their bottom-nine forwards, and if the second line can continue to bolster the first line's scoring, Minnesota could maintain their spot atop the WCHA for the remainder of the season.
2. Jake Hansen - 0G-1A-1P
Hansen, the team's best player on Friday, was equally as impressive on Saturday, notching an assist on the game-winning goal for the second night in a row. Hansen's hustle this weekend was nice to see from the senior. He was solid on the penalty kill all game long, and his efforts were a big part of why the Gophers only gave up twelve shots on goal throughout the whole game.
1. Sam Warning - 1G-0A-1P
Warning has had a rough go of it this year, seeing his ice-time reduced while he has struggled to make an impact in the lineup. Warning had a great weekend, though, and capped off the good effort with a late goal in the third period to win the game for the Gophers. Warning is a small player with big skills, and hopefully this weekend's results can further his confidence and propel him into the Gophers' secondary scoring conversation.
Combined with a surprising one-point weekend by Minnesota-Duluth at home to Michigan Tech, the Gophers' sweep gives them thirty points in the WCHA and a big five point lead in the league. UMD does have two games in hand on the Gophers, but Minnesota has five points and the tiebreaker on the Bulldogs.
Don't look now, but North Dakota is right back in it. The nameless-ones swept a disappointing Wisconsin team and are now tied for fourth in the league. As much as I love watching the Gophers beat North Dakota, I would be okay if we did not have to play them again this year. They always get hot at the right time, and this surge could be the typical Dave Hakstol second-half. For those of us who love the Gophers and dislike North Dakota, let's hope that their season ends in typical Dave Hakstol fashion: ultimately disappointing and left wanting for a title.
Could this be the start of a swoon for UMD? Up 4-0 in the first period on Friday, the Bulldogs looked like they were in control of the weekend before giving up four unanswered to Michigan Tech to tie before losing 5-0 to the Huskies on Saturday. Nine straight goals allowed at home to Michigan Tech is not necessarily an inspiring performance. The Bulldogs are still atop the Pairwise rankings, but it will be interesting to see how they respond the rest of the season. Many had already anointed UMD the champions of the WCHA given their easy schedule in the second half, but now in a five point hole to the Gophers we'll see what happens when the rubber meets the road.
Minnesota has a week off next weekend before traveling to Denver for a tough series against the Pioneers.