MINNEAPOLIS — It didn’t sound or feel much like a win. But for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, it was, all the same.
In a game interrupted by 18 power plays and marred by a resulting lack of flow, Minnesota’s top players did enough to get the victory. John Pohl, Jeff Taffe and Jordan Leopold essentially were the Gopher offense in a 5-3 win over Minnesota State-Mankato, Friday night at Mariucci Arena.
That group, named by Mankato head coach Troy Jutting as “three of the best players in the country, if not the three best,” scored all five Minnesota goals and added three assists, continuing second-ranked Minnesota’s (7-0-1) unbeaten start.
“I thought we played pretty well overall,” said Jutting. “I feel like we did miss some opportunities … Players have to make plays, and theirs did.”
In a choppy-yet-not-really-physical contest that wasn’t decided until well into the third period, Leopold, Pohl and Taffe did just that.
“Somebody’s got to light the team up,” said Leopold, who notched two goals — including the game-winner — and an assist. “That’s what happened tonight.”
“Jordan and I have to be the leaders,” said Pohl, whose offensive output duplicated Leopold’s, of his fellow senior. “We’ve been here four years.”
The opening minutes saw missed connections hampering the Minnesota offense and Mankato (5-4-0) finishing checks but not generating a lot of chances. The Gophers had the first significant scoring opportunities on a power play, but failed to capitalize against an aggressive Maverick penalty kill.
“We seemed a little sluggish,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “But they’re [Mankato] not going to give us a lot of room.”
MSU’s Nate Metcalf provided the Gophers a second man-advantage, though, pulling down Nick Angell behind the Mankato net. The Mavericks compounded the error with a too-many-men bench minor, giving Minnesota a five-on-three.
The Gophers promptly took advantage, with Leopold working the puck to fellow blueliner Paul Martin. Martin’s diagonal pass gave Taffe half the net to shoot at, and the junior made no mistake, burying his ninth goal of the year for a 1-0 lead at 7:40.
Mankato got that goal back just over six minutes later, after a Martin crosscheck put the Mavericks up a man. B.J. Abel fed Tim Jackman alongside the net, and Jackman slipped the puck across the crease for team scoring leader Jerry Cunningham, who netted his fifth goal on a one-timer inside the right post at 14:03.
Pohl had a chance to give Minnesota the lead again in the waning seconds of the period, but his wrist shot clanked off the left post.
However, Leopold made it 2-1 just 22 seconds into the middle period, picking up a failed clearing attempt and skating to the point before unleashing a pinpoint shot that beat Jon Volp high on the glove side.
Cunningham had a bid to even it up 6:20 into the second, splitting the defense for a one-on-one with Adam Hauser, but he deked one time too many and shot softly into Hauser’s glove.
Nonetheless, the Mavericks continued to frustrate the Gophers, clogging the passing lanes and playing puck-possession hockey until another penalty — an interference call against Erik Wendell — gave Mankato another chance to tie the game. Defenseman Steven Johns, operating at the point, slipped the puck to Abel along the boards, and the junior center worked his way into the slot for a shot that beat Hauser far-side.
Minnesota took the lead for good after Metcalf got caught holding Leopold on a partial breakaway. Just seconds into the man advantage, Taffe picked up a loose puck in the offensive zone and shot on net, but was turned away by Volp. The rebound, however, bounced straight to Pohl, who rapped it back into the net to make it 3-2.
Seconds after killing Mankato’s sixth power play, Minnesota upped the lead to two on an unlucky bounce for the Mavericks. Skating in the left circle, Pohl dropped the puck back for Leopold at the point, and the All-American’s slapshot hit a Maverick stick at chest level, caroming past Volp for a 4-2 lead.
Two-goal lead aside, Lucia was not happy after 40 minutes of play.
“We actually showed a videotape [on defensive assignments] after the second period,” said Lucia. “We just went over assignments, and we did a better job of that in the third.”
MSU-Mankato got back within one early in the third. Cole Bassett, behind the Gopher net, hit left winger Shane Joseph in the high slot, and Joseph’s snapshot found its way through traffic for his team-best sixth goal.
But the penalties continued to come, with MSU defenseman Joe Bourne hooking Pohl down. Matt Koalska led the charge on the Gophers’ sixth power play, banging the puck off the goalie’s pads and out into the slot, where Pohl swatted it under Volp’s glove for the 5-3 final.
In the contest, Minnesota finished 3-for-8 on the power play. Mankato was 2-for-10 with the extra skater. Volp stopped 27 shots before leaving in the last minute for a Maverick six-on-four, while Hauser made 24 saves in the Gopher net.
The same two teams meet again Saturday night at Mariucci Arena.