MINNEAPOLIS — Earlier this week, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia had concerns about his team’s readiness for the WCHA playoffs after the Gophers lost three of their last four games of the regular season.
He needn’t have worried.
Minnesota controlled play from the opening drop Friday night, dominating Michigan Tech en route to a 7-2 win. The Gophers scored four times in the first 13-plus minutes of the game, beginning with senior winger Stuart Senden’s pacesetting goal just 58 seconds in.
“With our history, you always want to get a good start,” said Senden of the sometimes-unpredictable Gopher offense.
“Fourteen different guys got points; seven guys got goals,” said Lucia. “It was a total team effort.”
The Huskies, meanwhile, were effectively out of the game after the opening minutes.
“I was very disappointed,” said MTU head coach Mike Sertich. “I never expected this.”
Senden’s goal, his first since a hat trick against Quinnipiac on Dec. 9, gave the hosts a lead they built throughout the evening. The Gophers, whose power play was stifled last weekend against St. Cloud, scored twice with the man-advantage, although special teams were little more than an afterthought once Minnesota made it 3-0 after 10 minutes, then 4-1 at the end of the first period.
“We had some offense, but when you’re down 3-0 [early] … Geez, give us a chance to win,” Sertich said.
Seven minutes after Senden’s marker — the result of good puck movement behind the net by third-line mates Nick Anthony and Matt Koalska — the Minnesota power play struck. In a scene familiar to Gopher fans this season, rookie Grant Potulny tipped Jordan Leopold’s snapshot from the point under MTU goalie Brian Rogers to make it 2-0 at 8:18. Potulny’s goal was his 20th of the season, and his national-best 15th power-play marker.
Barely a minute later, Jeff Taffe backhanded the rebound of John Pohl’s stuff attempt into the net to make it a three-goal lead.
The Huskies, however, responded with a power-play conversion of their own. Senior defenseman Mat Snesrud’s shot from the top of the left circle was deflected by Brett Engelhardt to make it 3-1 at 12:34.
Minnesota, though, showed its own determination with another goal 29 seconds later. The third line was again responsible, with Senden feeding Anthony for a spinning backhander that looked like good fortune more than design.
MTU’s leading goalscorer, winger Paul Cabana, had a nice scoring chance on a move to the front in the waning moments, but Gopher netminder Adam Hauser smothered his shot to keep it 4-1 after 20 minutes of play.
The second period settled down considerably, despite several more power plays for both sides.
Dylan Mills scored the Gophers’ fifth goal with a high slapper at 11:49, aside from which the period could best be described as “uneventful.” Michigan Tech managed just three shots on goal in the middle frame, all coming on the power play.
The third period looked much the same until a sudden burst of offense in the final minutes. Michigan Tech’s best stretch of play culminated in a nice goal for Jarrett Weinberger, as the senior got free on the back door and took a feed from centerman Brad Patterson for a low hummer far-side, his 12th goal of the year to make it 5-2.
The Gophers finished off the scoring, however, potting two goals in a span of 52 seconds. Rookie Troy Riddle had the first, a partial breakaway off a cross-ice pass from Erik Westrum at 17:21.
The second came from Nick Angell, whose harmless-looking slapper from the high slot got through traffic and then through Rogers. Ben Tharp and Westrum got the assists, with Westrum’s third helper of the night tying him with Leopold for the team lead at 32.
“I was happy to see us get a couple after they scored,” said Lucia. “We want to win every period. That’s important to us.”
For the evening, shots on goal favored Minnesota 32-18.
The Gophers and Huskies lock up again Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. CT in game two of the best-of-three series. A win by the hosts sends Minnesota to the WCHA Final Five, while a Tech victory forces game three Sunday.
Sertich, meanwhile, had an improvement in mind for Saturday.
“Compete,” he said. “We had way too much respect for them.”