Minnesota Gophers Beat Beavers Early in Overtime, NCAA Hopes Get Shot in the Arm
Prior to Saturday night's game against Bemidji State, the Gophers had not won a regular season conference overtime game since November 4th, 2006. Make that March 5th, 2010. The Gophers battled back from an early 2-0 deficit to force overtime, and Nick Bjugstad scored his second goal of the game just 20 seconds into the extra session as the Gophers won to secure fifth place in the WCHA and extended their unbeaten streak to seven games in the process.
Saturday: 3-2 Gopher Win (in OT)
Bemidji State came out with what appeared to be a similar game plan as what they had the night before, playing a punishing physical game in their small rink. The Gophers seemed more ready for that style of play in Saturday's contest, focusing on quick breakout passes and getting the puck out of their own defensive zone. This seemed to work well for Minnesota, as the Gophers did a solid job of limiting Bemidji scoring chances all game long.
However, Bemidji drew first blood by taking advantage of a Gopher turnover. Cade Fairchild tried to make a pass up center ice from behind his own net, but former Gopher Drew Fisher broke up the play, and in the ensuing scramble, Jeff Jubinville scored his second goal of the season at 14:40 to give the Beavers a 1-0 lead, which they held until the end of the period.
Minnesota's skill took over in the second period, and the Gophers got the better of them throughout the majority of the middle frame. The Maroon and Gold outshot Bemidji State 16-11 in the second, and although the Gophers limited the Beaver chances in the period, the teams tied 1-1 on the scoreboard.
Bemidji's Aaron McLeod took advantage of another Gopher mistake when defenseman Nate Schmidt attempted to bank the puck off the end boards behind the net. Schmidt's clearing attempt ricocheted off a broken stick left behind Kent Patterson's goal right to McLeod in the slot. McLeod made a nifty move to beat Patterson and give the Beavers a solid 2-0 lead.
However, the Gophers had plenty of comeback left in them. Just as a Nick Bjugstad penalty was coming to an end, Mark Alt led a breakout on the penalty kill out of the Gopher zone. Alt passed the puck up to captain Jay Barriball, who passed it back to Alt on breaking 2-on-1 rush. Beaver goalie Dan Bakala made the save, but Bjugstad, coming out of the box and rushing into the play, pounced on the juicy rebound and pushed it past Bakala to get the Gophers back within one. That is where the period would come to an end.
The Gophers entered the third period trailing by a goal but absolutely dominated the play in the final frame. Minnesota outshot the Beavers 16-7 in the period and controlled the puck throughout the entire period. However, seemingly every chance the Gophers got, Beaver goalie Dan Bakala was up to the challenge. The Gophers finally got a power-play chance at 13:11 of the period, and Mike Hoeffel popped in a rebound opportunity right at the goal mouth at 14:41 to tie the game.
The Gophers had the best chances the rest of the way, but the game remained tied and headed into overtime for the second consecutive night. This time, though, Minnesota's offensive prowess would result in a goal and a win. Nick Bjugstad won the opening faceoff, and Bemidji would not control the puck in the entire overtime period.
The Gophers got the puck into the Beaver zone, and after passing the puck around, Cade Fairchild hit Bjugstad with a snap pass in the mid-slot. Bjugstad deflected the puck on net, and the quick play caught Bakala unawares. The Beaver netminder got a pad on the shot but not enough to stop the biscuit from trickling over the goal line and giving the Gophers a 3-2 overtime win.
The "Kent Patterson" Star of the Game: Nick Bjugstad
Bjugstad has really started to come on in the past several weeks. Saturday against Bemidji, Bjugstad was a man among boys. Bjugstad scored two goals, the first goal and the overtime winner, as well as winning one-on-one battles throughout the game and winning lots of faceoffs for the Gophers. Bjugstad is an important piece of this team, and his continued development is one of the biggest reasons this team is unbeaten in their last seven games. Bjugstad's two goals came just when the Gophers needed them, and he was the Gopher Star of the Game.
With a sweep over Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, Minnesota in all likelihood will have done enough to make the NCAA tournament. The key is sweeping that first-round series. If the team does not sweep, it will likely need to win at least one game in the Final Five in order to make the big dance. This team has been playing really well recently, and with the way the Gophers dominated Anchorage this season, I expect two well-contested Gopher victories next weekend.
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