The big comeback?
Is this in fact the great resurgence of the University of Minnesota?
Maybe that’s a little too dramatic. But then again, it’s been a while since the Gophers have been golden at Engelstad Arena.
Time and time again they would go into Grand Forks, come close to beating North Dakota but still leave empty-handed. They lost a pair of one-goal games at roughly the same time of year last season.
This year, apparently, is different.
Friday was one of those close ones — a 1-0 loss preserved by heroics from UND goaltender Karl Goehring — but Minnesota finally broke through on Saturday.
And with a 5-2 win, the Gophers got their first victory at Engelstad since Feb. 12, 1994. Jinx? What jinx?
"I don’t believe in the boogie man," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
Sure — he didn’t have to be around for all those losses, all that frustration. While the Gophers were losing at Engelstad, his Colorado College Tigers of years past were actually coming out of Grand Forks with wins.
But Lucia’s point is that the better team on any given night will probably come away with two points. It just so happened that his team was the better one on Saturday.
And the Gophers were able to do what even Wisconsin couldn’t. They held a third-period lead.
"I think the biggest hurdle was being up going into the third," Lucia said. "The previous few years, North Dakota’s been able to rally from two or three goals down entering the third and come back and win. I think that was the key, being up by one going into the third, we were able to not allow a goal in the third period.
"A lot of the credit goes to (goaltender) Adam (Hauser) because when we were on our heels a little bit to start the third, he made a lot of great saves."
So where does this leave the Gophers? They are in seventh place, one point behind Minnesota State, their opponent this weekend, and just three points out of fourth place.
With six weekends left in the regular season, the Gophers play four of the six teams ahead of them in the standings.
"This is a real crucial time for us," Lucia said. "Mankato is one point ahead of us; this is the only two times we’re going to see them. We’re playing teams in the next month that we have a chance to climb over in the standings. What’s great about our league right now is … Duluth, Mankato, ourselves, St. Cloud, Anchorage and CC are fighting for who’s going to end up where."
The consistency his team has shown in this part of the season is another aspect Lucia is pleased with.
"I would like us to continue to play like we have after Christmas," Lucia said. "We have to continue to be consistent on defense. We’re basically going young back there with three sophomores, two freshmen and a junior. Right now, we only have two seniors in the lineup. Can we be consistent night in and night out? That’s going to be the big challenge for us. We’re not good enough that if we don’t play hard and play well, we’re not going to win. We have to do that just to have a chance to win every night."
Close the border
The Minnesota borders are closed this weekend.
Minnesota plays Minnesota State and St. Cloud State plays Minnesota-Duluth, and both matchups could have tremendous impacts on the WCHA standings.
The Gophers-Mavericks series is especially important because it is the only time these teams will meet this season. If either sweeps, it will hold the tiebreaker over the other.
And with the teams only one point apart, that could come into play, and possibly for the No. 5 spot in the standings.
But Mankato coach Don Brose said his team isn’t playing the standings.
"I don’t think it impacts the way we’re going to prepare," Brose said. "It’s up to the players to mentally prepare. If they don’t, the repercussions are that Minnesota will jump by. We’re sitting in sixth now and if Minnesota won all four points, it would be a struggle for us to get a top-five place. We’d drop to seventh place."
St. Cloud and Duluth are four spots apart in the standings, but only separated by five points. If the Bulldogs get a sweep, they could possibly move into sixth.
St. Cloud gets two games back from Colorado College this weekend with the Tigers idle, and could move into sole possession of third place with three or four points.
And this is a series featuring two of the hottest teams in the conference. SCSU has one loss in its last 11 games and Duluth has won five of its last seven.
Without that stretch for Duluth, this season could have turned real bad.
"Probably the turnaround came when we came back from twice down to Boston University at Christmastime and won a big game there," UMD coach Mike Sertich said. "I think the confidence went mile high.
"When a team starts believing they can win, rather than hoping they’re going to win, expect to win instead of just holding on, I think everything changes. You don’t get the ups and downs as much as you do if they’re struggling within."
More than another point
What’s the difference between accepting a tie and winning a game in overtime? St. Cloud State may have showed it on Saturday night.
Mike Pudlick scored with 17 seconds left in overtime on Friday to give the Huskies a 5-4 win over Alaska-Anchorage. The next night, they came out and whipped the Seawolves 8-2.
One wonders if the result may have been different on Saturday with a tie on Friday.
"Obviously, when you win with 17 seconds left in overtime it’s a big boost, just morale-wise," SCSU coach Craig Dahl said. "It’s a big win, especially when they’re four points ahead of you in the standings. Saturday, I think they only got 21 shots on net. They hadn’t been outshot in a series all year and we outshot them both nights badly. We scored like five goals in 9 minutes and that pretty much KO’d them."
This latest stretch for the Huskies just proves the truth of something Dahl says quite often: Success breeds success.
"When you have success, you get confidence," Dahl said. "I think our players have done a good job remaining focused, realizing that our real opponent is ourselves. If we stay focused and prepare to play for each game, then go out and try to close the gap between your performance and your potential, that seems to be when we are the most successful. I think our guys are buying into that idea."
Tigers’ wake-up call
The sleeping Tigers may finally have received their wake-up call.
A night after a shutout win over Denver, Colorado College trailed the Pioneers 4-1 after two periods. But then the Tigers erupted for five third-period goals in a span of 8:26 to win 6-4.
"I’ve been involved in hockey for a long time. I’ve never seen a third-period comeback like we had in Saturday’s game, with that many goals in so short a time," CC coach Scott Owens said. "It capped off a great weekend for us."
Those two wins, coupled with losses by North Dakota and Wisconsin on Saturday, put the Tigers three points out of second place and seven points out of first. CC plays Wisconsin in the last weekend of the regular season, but does not see North Dakota again.
The Tigers have life and apparently want to be a big factor in the WCHA race.
Keep scoring, and they should have no trouble in that.
Underappreciated player of the week
Matt Ulwelling, Michigan Tech
Maybe it’s because he plays for Michigan Tech that Matt Ulwelling doesn’t get the spotlight.
No offense to either the Huskies or Ulwelling, but he does largely go unnoticed, as does the team. But the junior forward from Warroad, Minn., has moments when he can take his team to another level.
Said Brad Sanford, one of two people to nominate Ulwelling, of Saturday’s game against UMD: "He personally brought his team back from the graveyard at 3-0 to pull them to 3-2, eventually with MTU tying it twice at 3-3 and 4-4 only to lose in a 5-4 heartbreaker. But they only had a chance because of Ulwelling."
Ulwelling, who is second on the Huskies with 14 points (six goals, eight assists), drew praise from MTU coach Tim Watters for his ability to perform at every opportunity.
"Matt is a tremendous competitor and a tireless worker," Watters said. "He works his tail off for everything he gets and competes each and every practice and each and every game. He lays it on the line every time he steps on the ice, whether it be for practice or for games.
"His competitive nature is invaluable to the program."
Thumbs of the week
Down to North Dakota’s Jason Notermann, who blasted Minnesota’s Pat O’Leary head-first into the boards on Friday. O’Leary sat out Saturday’s game with a concussion and a neck strain, and, according to Lucia, will have to sit out again this weekend. Lucia said he hasn’t sent the tape to the league to be reviewed for possible suspension.
Up to UND goaltender Karl Goehring for getting the team record for wins in a shutout on Friday. His 55th win surpassed Darren Jensen.
Watch next week for a look at the last five weeks of the WCHA’s regular season, and what teams will need to do to either keep or better their place in the standings.
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