MINNEAPOLIS — Perhaps Minnesota can petition the WCHA to play Saturday doubleheaders.
Coming off a 3-1 loss to Denver Friday night, the Gophers continued their recent pattern of turning up the heat in series finales, taking a 6-1 decision Saturday at Mariucci Arena. Up 2-1 late in the second period, Minnesota scored four goals in the final 21 minutes to seal the victory. Minnesota is now 0-3-1 in series openers in 2002, and 4-0-0 in the rematches.
Defenseman Keith Ballard tallied two goals, while freshman goaltender Travis Weber remained perfect on the season at 6-0-0, making 22 saves to help the hosts to the split.
“We started and finished,” said Gopher coach Don Lucia. “Travis didn’t have to do much early, but as the game went on he had to make two or three big saves.”
For Denver, the loss ended a 12-game winning streak which propelled the Pioneers into the top spot in the national polls. Ironically, the Pioneers’ last loss to these same Gophers, on Dec. 7 in Denver.
The Gophers nabbed the win with unrelenting pressure, forcing the Pioneers to allow a season-high 46 shots on goal. Minnesota’s powerful but recently-dormant power play was a key as well, as the Gophers went 3-for-7 with the extra skater.
“We wanted to get the power play going,” said Weber. “We can shut them down five-on-five, but we have to get at least one power-play [goal].”
The opening minutes were nearly a duplication of Friday night, with Minnesota applying solid pressure and Denver doing just enough to keep the puck out of the net.
After unsuccessful power plays for both sides, several minutes of aggressive forward play for Minnesota — including Matt Koalska’s point-blank wrister that Adam Berkhoel (40 saves) sprawled to grab — produced nothing on the scoreboard.
The Gophers, however, didn’t let their next chance get away. On their second power play, they buzzed the Denver net until Jeff Taffe collected a bouncing puck alongside the goal and fed Grant Potulny out front. Berkhoel made the save, but John Pohl put away the rebound from the edge of the crease at 17:54.
That was how the first period ended, with Minnesota enjoying a 17-6 shot advantage and its first lead of the weekend.
The teams again put on unsuccessful power plays early in the second before another Denver power play — this one on a Matt DeMarchi hold — ended with a stuff attempt from Greg Barber that Weber stopped.
The parade to the box continued momentarily, as DeMarchi had barely hit the ice when he went right back in, along with Doell, for roughing. Speedster Troy Riddle created another Gopher man-advantage 21 seconds later, going in one-on-three and inducing an obstruction call against Erik Adams.
Berkhoel was strong in net, though, victimizing Taffe in close and then Keith Ballard, on a shot struck hard enough that the puck ricocheted 75 feet off Berkhoel’s glove and landed in the stands alongside the blue line.
Minnesota’s second goal finally came on an innocent-looking possession in the defensive zone that turned into a two-on-two break when Matt Koalska got around a forechecking Chris Paradise. Koalska flipped the puck to Erik Wendell on the left wing, and Wendell’s high wrister slipped through Berkhoel to make it 2-0 Minnesota.
A hold on Nick Angell gave Denver its fourth power play, which turned into a five-on-three when DeMarchi took his third penalty of the period, a borderline-looking crosscheck along the boards at 15:06.
The Pioneers promptly converted against an aggressive Gopher penalty kill, as Connor James slipped behind the defenders and fed Lukas Dora at the opposite side of the crease for a point-blank one-timer. Dora’s 10th goal of the season narrowed the lead to one at 15:43.
But with the Pioneers challenging, Minnesota pulled away, scoring four more times to turn a slobberknocker into a rout.
The first came on an odd-man rush in the final minute of the second period. 6-4 freshman Barry Tallackson raced up the right side and hit a streaking Ballard behind his defender, and Ballard reached the back of the net with a high wrister to Berkhoel’s right.
And from there, it was all Gophers. Denver’s Max Bull slashed Weber to end the second, putting Minnesota up a man to start the third period. Near the end of that penalty, Ballard netted his second of the night, knuckling a slapshot from the point through a screen at 1:37.
“That’s the best Keith has played since he came back from the World Juniors,” Lucia said. “He’s been sluggish and tired, but tonight he was his old self.”
Weber stoned Dora on a four-on-four chance with eight minutes left to keep the momentum, and at 14:13 Taffe scored the Gophers’ fifth goal on the power play, off a Pohl feed across the crease.
“Sometimes you get ‘em, and sometimes you don’t,” said Weber. “Tonight I was getting them.”
Finally, with four minutes to go Minnesota captain Jordan Leopold scored his 15th goal of the year, again off Pohl’s assist while the sides skated four-on-four, to provide the final margin.
Next weekend, the Pioneers host archrival Colorado College for a pair. Minnesota entertains the French Olympic team Monday, then goes on the road to play two against Minnesota-Duluth Friday and Saturday.