MINNEAPOLIS — Propelled by the third line of Stuart Senden, Nick Anthony and Matt Koalska, Minnesota downed Michigan Tech 3-1 Saturday night to claim a berth in the WCHA Final Five. The Senden-Anthony-Koalska line figured in all three Gopher goals, scoring two of them and adding four assists.
“That’s big at this time of the season, to have the third line score like that,” said Gopher head coach Don Lucia.
By virtue of the win, the Gophers all but locked up an NCAA tournament berth for the first time in four seasons; only a poor performance at the Final Five, coupled with a run of upset champions and additional unlikelihoods in the other major conferences, could keep Minnesota out of the national tourney.
Saturday night, they looked like they deserved the bid.
“We’re just trying to stick to the basics, and play good hockey,” said Anthony of his mates’ emergence this weekend. “I think our line was really moving the puck well.”
“Everybody’s having fun,” added Senden, a senior playing his last game at Mariucci Arena. “That’s the way it should be.”
The Gophers enjoyed consecutive power plays to open the game, but Michigan Tech showed a more effective penalty kill than on Friday, eventually holding the Gophers scoreless on four man-advantages for the game.
Indeed, the Huskies’ superior hustle allowed them to control play for stretches of the first period, forcing goalie Adam Hauser to make some quality saves — including a one-on-one blocker stop on Mat Snesrud in the slot at 7:30 after a defensive mixup.
But at 17:01, Minnesota got on the scoreboard first. Koalska managed to outfight MTU’s Tom Kaiman to the puck behind the Tech net, and his centering pass found a streaking Ben Tharp in the slot. Tharp’s shot beat Husky netminder Brian Rogers (38 saves) low to the far side.
As on Friday night, the second period was a measured affair, until the Gophers once again scored in the waning moments. With three minutes to go in the frame, a Koalska shot on goal got through Rogers but missed the cage. Anthony sent it back through the crease, where Senden was standing uncovered for the easiest putaway imaginable, and a 2-0 lead.
“One thing I can say about Stu [Senden] is that he doesn’t score a lot of goals, but he seems to score big goals,” said Lucia.
Shots on goal favored Minnesota 30-18 after two periods as the Gophers began to assert themselves offensively, but the Huskies had a couple of quality scoring chances to open the third — notably Jason Doetzel’s partial breakaway that Hauser barely broke up with a pokecheck.
Tech’s hustle paid off at 3:43, as Matt Ulwelling’s shot-pass was tipped under Hauser by Chris Durno. The center’s ninth goal of the year made it 2-1.
A golden opportunity escaped Minnesota minutes later as freshman Troy Riddle missed the net after a neat Erik Westrum drop pass, chipping the puck wide with Rogers well out of position.
Then, when Westrum hit iron on a power-play blast moments afterward, it looked like fate might favor Michigan Tech on this night. Minnesota retreated to playing dump-and-run for a few minutes, but with Tech unable to gain possession in the offensive zone, Anthony finally gathered a loose puck in the high slot and fired, then put his own rebound home for the insurance goal at 14:44.
Westrum was whistled for high-sticking at 18:10 to make it interesting, but the Huskies again couldn’t control the puck, and even Rogers’ brief departure from the net for a six-on-four would not help as Minnesota held on to advance.
Almost lost in the shuffle was the play of Hauser, who stopped 26 of 27 MTU shots to nail down the win.
With the loss, Michigan Tech (8-24-4) ends its season. Meanwhile, since the WCHA reseeds teams for the Final Five, Minnesota (27-10-2) will not know its semifinal opponent until after Sunday’s first-round game three between North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth.