MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota captain Erik Westrum scored twice, including a shorthanded empty-netter with 43 seconds left, to lead the Gophers a slow-paced 3-1 victory against visiting Minnesota-Duluth Friday in their home opener at Mariucci Arena.
The Gophers outshot the Bulldogs 33-13 while dominating puck possession in all three periods, but were unable to put away a determined UMD squad in head coach Scott Sandelin’s debut. Goaltender Adam Coole made 30 saves, few spectacular but many timely, to keep Duluth in the contest.
The tenor of the contest was a dramatic change from the Gophers’ first two games, in which Minnesota outscored its opponents by a combined total of 16-6.
“Welcome to the WCHA,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “I wasn’t surprised….It was actually the kind of game I expected to see.”
Minnesota sophomore Jeff Taffe, who notched the winning goal in the third, had a simple explanation for the grind-it-out flow: “They always play us tough.”
Early on, though, it looked like more of the same from the new razzle-dazzle Gopher offense.
One minute and forty-four seconds in, a high-stick against winger Tom Nelson gave Minnesota its first power play of the evening, and the Gophers wasted no time in capitalizing, as Erik Westrum took a feed at the edge of the far circle, skated to the high slot and fired the puck through traffic in front. The shot appeared to nick a UMD body, fooling netminder Adam Coole on its way to becoming Westrum’s fourth tally of the young season at 1:57.
Minutes later, the Bulldogs got a chance to even it up on Troy Riddle’s obstruction call, but instead waited until just after the advantage ended to score. On the first rush after the end of the ineffective power play, Derek Derow eased up the right side and evaded Minnesota’s defense for a clean chance at Hauser. Derow’s short wrister snuck between Hauser and the right post, giving UMD a 1-1 tie on the visitors’ first shot on goal.
Territorial control thereafter stayed with the Gophers, but the Minnesota forwards were unable to convert possessions into quality shots as both teams seemed a step off. Taffe nearly put the hosts back in front with a neat step-through move amidst traffic, but Coole gloved his snapshot to preserve the tie through the end of one.
Shots on goal favored Minnesota, 10-4, after a deliberate 20 minutes of play. The Gophers maintained that edge throughout the evening, despite which the number of Grade-A scoring opportunities was small.
“There were times we were a little overselective [with shots],” Lucia admitted, but added, “Give credit to UMD for the way they sealed off.”
Riddle opened up the second by finishing a two-man rush with a shot just wide of the Duluth net, but on the return rush Ryan Homstol earned a two-minute rest for a high stick. Minnesota could do nothing with the resulting power play, however, failing to chalk up even a shot on goal.
In fact, five minutes would elapse in the second period before either team registered a shot, as Minnesota continued to govern play without tangible results. What was slow in the first period was more so in the second, with Minnesota patrolling the UMD perimeter and the Bulldogs playing a conservative position defense, blocking shots and clearing pucks.
Near the 14-minute mark — in the waning moments of the fourth Minnesota power play — blueline quarterback Dylan Mills was the next Gopher to offer a scoring chance, pelting Coole from the point with a shot that trickled behind the netminder before teammate Andy Reierson stopped it short of the goal line. Nick Anthony followed with a slapper from the right side, and freshman Jon Waibel had a whack at the rebound before Coole covered the puck to end the threat.
That meant that the second period ended as a tie, too.
Finally, midway through the third period, Bulldog penalties 24 seconds apart were enough for the Gophers to break through. With rookie Jay Hardwick and hard-hitting Jesse Fibiger in the box, the five-on-three Gophers quickly worked the puck to Mills up high. The senior defenseman’s indirect pass off the rear boards reached Taffe, whose redirection beat Coole high for a 2-1 Minnesota lead.
That goal was the eventual game-winner, but Minnesota-Duluth put on a burst in the waning minutes of regulation, controlling the zone for the first extended period in the game while forcing the Gophers into poor outlet attempts.
Judd Medak and Aaron Miskovich’s coincidental roughing minors left the game four-on-four with 3:04 left, and when Anthony was called for goaltender interference after bumping Coole from behind cutting across the crease, the Bulldogs had their opportunity. The four-on-three chance was denied, though, and moments later Westrum picked off the puck at center ice en route to his insurance marker.
“We were right there going into the third, and maybe tomorrow night we’ll be a little more offensive and the result will be different,” said Sandelin, making his first appearance after replacing longtime UMD head coach Mike Sertich during the offseason. “I don’t know about the conditioning factor, but [the Gophers] haven’t played two games in a row either.”