MINNEAPOLIS — Q: What do you, the head coach, do when your team scores two goals in the first 1:17 of the game, then shuts out the opponent for over two periods en route to a five-goal victory?
A: If you’re Minnesota’s Don Lucia, you give your players a good dressing-down afterward.
That’s exactly what Lucia did Friday night after the Gophers’ 8-3 win over Michigan Tech, a long, rough, sloppy affair in which Minnesota got the bounces early, put on the jets midway through the contest, and coasted for most of the third period as the Huskies tried to battle back.
“I wasn’t happy with the guys after the game, and I told them that,” said Lucia. “At the end of the year, it’s the teams that tighten [play] up that are a factor, and giving up 41 shots on goal [actually 40] is not tightening up.”
“We need to go out there and play every shift with full effort,” said junior winger Erik Wendell, who accounted for two of the Gophers’ eight goals. “Coach expects us to give a good effort, and I think we should expect that of one another.”
It was only the fourth time all season the Gophers had been outshot, as the gritty Huskies did enough work on the ice to keep it close for 30 minutes.
“I don’t think the score was indicative of the game,” Lucia said. “We got the bounces.”
That was especially true early on. Just 25 seconds into the contest, Erik Westrum’s cross-crease pass hit Tech defenseman Justin Brown’s skate and hopped back to Grant Potulny, who lifted the puck past MTU goaltender Brian Rogers for his 15th goal of the season.
Less than a minute later, Minnesota’s Jordan Leopold tried to connect with Troy Riddle on the far side of the net. Again the puck hit a skate, and Riddle was able to sweep it into a half-open net, making the score 2-0 before the crowd had even settled in with nachos.
Asked if that were the worst possible start to a road game, always-quotable MTU head coach Mike Sertich quipped, “No, a bus crash would be much worse.”
Michigan Tech, however, quickly stemmed the Gopher tide, outshooting the hosts 10-2 over the next several minutes and setting a physical tone. Penalties, skirmishes after the whistle and good old-fashioned delaying tactics by both teams eventually stretched the game to almost three hours from horn to horn.
Michigan Tech’s best chance to close the gap came early in the second period, on a Minnesota power play. Junior Paul Cabana snuck in behind the press, a maneuver which turned into a shorthanded breakaway when the Gophers lost the puck at the blue line. But Cabana hesitated while driving in, and Gopher goalie Adam Hauser simply took the puck away as Cabana tried to cut.
“He looked like he was going one way,” said Hauser, who quietly put together an outstanding night in the Gopher nets with 37 saves. “And then he almost scored because he lost the puck.”
That, as it turned out, was the Huskies’ last chance to stay in the game, as Minnesota promptly converted three straight power plays.
Sophomore center Jeff Taffe sparked the next two goals, one off a long slapper that banged off the rear boards to Riddle, who fed winger Matt Koalska for a high scoop over Rogers’ shoulder.
The second, less than two minutes later, was that rare play which deserves three assists. Taffe, operating near the blue line, made a hustle play to keep the puck in, and then found Riddle in the same spot as before. Riddle centered to Koalska, who made the extra pass to get Aaron Miskovich — parked at the right side of the crease — an easy shot at a wide-open net.
The Gophers’ John Pohl, in his first game fully back from an ankle bruise, made it 5-0 with a back-door play at 16:09, taking Miskovich’s diagonal pass and banging the puck off Rogers’ skate for his 13th goal of the season.
Wendell notched another Minnesota goal in the last minute of the period, a hard shot that seemed to go through Rogers and ended any chance of a Tech comeback.
Wendell would get a second goal 4:56 into the third against new goaltender Jason Moilanen, after which Minnesota clearly dropped down a gear, giving Tech’s Tab Lardner and captain Matt Ulwelling chances to put the Huskies on the board.
That they did to make the score 7-2, but Taffe notched the eighth Gopher goal on yet another power play before Tech’s Tim Laurila posted his third of the year to account for the final.
Of course, the end of the scoring didn’t mean the end of the excitement on the ice, as a Greg Amadio check from behind turned into a six-man battle royal which produced misconducts (but not disqualifications) all around, bringing the game total to 142 penalty minutes between the two teams.
For the evening, Minnesota’s league-leading power play went 5-for-10, while Michigan Tech converted one of six chances.
The two teams meet again Saturday afternoon, at 3:05 p.m. Central time.