MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday night at Mariucci Arena, Minnesota State-Mankato was determined to rebound, and Minnesota was equally determined to continue its unbeaten start. The result was a barnburner as the host Gophers rallied for four unanswered goals to top the Mavericks, 4-2, and claim a weekend sweep.
Freshman defenseman Keith Ballard scored the game-winner, a slapshot that slipped between the legs of Mankato netminder Jon Volp early in the third period. Ballard’s winner came on a night when little got by Volp, who made 51 saves to keep the Mavericks in it after the Gopher pressure began in earnest.
“When you get 50-some shots, some of them have to get by,” said Ballard, summing up the Gophers’ offensive strategy for the evening.
The Mavericks served notice early that Saturday’s game would not resemble Friday’s in one way at least, peppering rookie goaltender Justin Johnson early in the opening minutes. One day after putting just six shots on net in the first period, the Mavericks racked up that many in the first five minutes as open ice prevailed.
Mankato (5-5-0) took its first lead of the weekend after an ill-advised hooking infraction by Gopher freshman Garrett Smaagaard. Coming back up the ice after thwarting a shorthanded two-on-one, the Mavericks converted on a rocket slapshot off the stick of defenseman Joe Bourne, who took a short pass from Nate Mauer and beat Johnson cleanly to the glove side at 4:20.
The Gophers continued to hurt themselves with penalties, cutting short a power play with a Troy Riddle slash. Again MSU-Mankato capitalized, as Shane Joseph unleashed a shot from the left point that Johnson blocked down and left in the crease. Senior Josh Kern was there to flip the puck top-shelf to make it 2-0 Mavericks.
Minnesota (8-0-1) got its chance to climb back into the fray late in the period. MSU’s Nate Metcalf went off for interference, and after a series of chances for Grant Potulny and John Pohl, Mankato captain Andy Hedlund knocked the net off and was called for delay of game.
Volp and the Mankato penalty-killers frustrated the Gophers repeatedly on both power plays — perhaps aided by a non-call on a could-have-been charge by Peter Runkel — but Minnesota promptly got another man-advantage on a Hedlund trip.
Volp again resembled an octopus, but as the penalty expired Judd Stevens’ shot-pass got through the crease to Matt Koalska, who managed to rip the puck past Volp on the near side to make it 2-1.
“The first goal was huge,” said Gopher head coach Don Lucia. “It seemed like the whole game shifted then.”
Johnson took his turn in the sun moments later, making point-blank stuff attempt on a breakaway before Hedlund’s third penalty of the game gave Minnesota its sixth power play and second goal. Jordan Leopold’s point shot appeared to graze a body in front, fluttering past Volp to tie the game at 11:32.
The Gophers turned away another Maverick power play moments afterward, with Johnson stoning two point-blank shots and a rocket from the point by Hedlund.
“Basically, I was thinking, ‘You have to stop it,’” said Johnson of his second-period performance.
Shots on goal for the period reflected Minnesota’s push, as the Gophers held a 21-7 advantage for a game total of 36-20.
“We did get off to a better start tonight,” said Mankato head coach Troy Jutting. “We had some chances when it was 2-1 to make it a two-goal game again.”
The third period resembled a track meet, which worked to Minnesota’s advantage when Pohl got some space at center ice, feeding Potulny along the left boards. Potulny dropped the puck for Ballard, who skated unopposed to the faceoff dot and ripped his shot five-hole for a 3-2 Gopher lead.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Ballard. “I just threw it on net.”
Another borderline call — this time a board against Mankato’s Dana Sorensen — put Minnesota up a man once again, but Volp came up big once more, knocking down Taffe’s wrister from the edge of the crease.
Play seemed to slow after that, with Minnesota content to keep the puck out of its defensive zone and MSU-Mankato unable to put significant pressure on the Gopher blueliners for several minutes.
Volp left, then returned, then left again with 48 seconds to go, and after a final pair of double minors to Tim Jackman and Matt DeMarchi for roughing, Taffe added the empty-netter to seal it.
“It’s November,” said Jutting of his takeaways from the game. “We want to be playing our best hockey in March … We’re going to continue to work on the things we need to, and if we do that we’re going to be okay.”
Johnson, though perhaps overshadowed by Volp’s heroics in defeat, made 31 saves for Minnesota. Lucia said the decision to start him was a matter of long-term planning.
“The only way you know how a guy’s going to do is to throw him out there in a tough game,” Lucia said of his freshman netminder. “The easy call would have been to play Adam [Hauser, Minnesota's senior goaltender].”
With the win, Minnesota is off to its best start since the 1987-88 season, when the Gophers opened with nine straight wins. Also, with St. Cloud’s loss to Colorado College Saturday, Minnesota is positioned to reclaim the nation’s number-one ranking Monday.