ST. PAUL, Minn. — A game that started out a little flat and a touch slow morphed into a lopsided affair Saturday night, as No. 1 Minnesota opened defense of its national championship with a 7-2 win over No. 15 Ohio State in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Faceoff Classic at the Xcel Energy Center.
“Well, it’s better to be 1-0 than 0-1,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia of the sometimes-sloppy matchup.
Youth was prominent in the Gophers’ lineup; the squad’s top three scorers and its four-year starting netminder departed after last season. Three of Minnesota’s seven goals were scored by freshmen, and sophomore netminder Travis Weber stopped 21 shots.
“The first game is a big game,” said Weber. “I just expected a lot of myself, to prove that I can be a starting goalie.”
A traditional Minnesota strength, the power play, also factored in the result. The Gophers went 5-for-11 with the man-advantage, which featured a substantial rookie component.
“I think our young players played smart,” said Lucia. “We played the way we hoped we’d play, with a lot of guys [contributing].”
A differential in speed also was telling. Minnesota outraced Ohio State for most of the evening, and the Buckeyes committed several obstruction and holding penalties.
“That [speed] is what caused most of those penalties,” said OSU coach John Markell.
Highly-touted Austrian import Thomas Vanek, the first European ever to play for Minnesota, scored his first collegiate goal at 7:49 by taking a pass from Barry Tallackson and beating the defenseman to the corner on the left side. Mike Betz blocked the initial shot, but Vanek put away his own rebound to give Minnesota the early lead.
“It was nice,” said Vanek of his goal, “but I didn’t put any pressure on myself to score, so it was just a bonus.”
After that, the game seemed to fall into something of a rut with both teams making the requisite early-season mistakes, although Minnesota built a 13-2 advantage in shots on goal. That was until both squads were jolted by Gopher defenseman Matt DeMarchi’s five-minute major for hitting Paul Caponigri from behind at 15:05.
That blast — not particularly vicious but clearly illegal — put the Buckeyes on the power play until Daymen Bencharski and Eric Skaug took penalties 11 seconds apart for OSU. With the Buckeye five-on-four thereby converted into a Gopher four-on-three, Minnesota was unable to score, though blueliner Paul Martin rang one off the right post just after the teams reverted to four per side.
Shots on goal after 20 minutes of play favored Minnesota, 20-4.
Fresh from the locker rooms, the Gophers wasted no time increasing the lead, on Troy Riddle’s shot from the high slot that slipped under Betz to make it 2-0 at :48. Minnesota nearly tacked on goal number three moments later, but Betz blocked Vanek’s wraparound, then got a leg across the crease to stop Tyler Hirsch’s follow-up stuff attempt.
Midway through the period, penalties to Vanek (holding) and Keith Ballard (tripping) gave the Buckeyes nearly a minute of five-on-three, but the OSU offense continued to look lethargic, with just one quality scoring chance that Weber denied.
That’s about when the wheels came off for the Buckeyes.
Defenseman Pete Broccoli went off for holding at 14:26, and Minnesota quickly converted the resulting power play. Dan Welch notched the goal on a tip-in of Ballard’s centering pass.
Less than a minute after Welch’s goal, OSU went down a man again, this time courtesy of a high-sticking infraction assessed to Dave Steckel. Again the Gophers made it count, with Matt Koalska one-timing Vanek’s diagonal pass under a sliding Betz.
The score after two periods stood at 4-0 Gophers, although Minnesota’s failure to convert a five-on-three late in the frame gave the Buckeyes tenuous hope.
“[After the second] I told them, ‘We’ve got to stay out of the box … and we’ve got to win one period. We’ve got to do something for ourselves,’” Markell said.
Instead, a parade of OSU penalties and three ensuing Gopher goals in a three-minute span put the game away for good.
Ballard’s rocket of a slapshot banked in off the post on another five-on-three at 7:09; Hirsch scored a minute and a half later with a wrister from the slot; and fellow freshman Gino Guyer made it 7-0 by roofing a shot off Betz’s body after skating around a fallen defender alongside the crease.
For Ohio State, R.J. Umberger broke up the shutout by stealing the puck in the offensive zone and beating Weber up high, shorthanded, at 11:01. The Buckeyes’ Lee Spector added a goal late off a takeaway to provide the final margin.
“We gave up some turnovers late, and we have to get a lot better on faceoffs,” said Lucia.
Minnesota outshot Ohio State 51-23 for the contest, and even that margin was deceptively close thanks to a late OSU surge. Betz, frequently left on an island by his defense, made 44 saves.
“You depend on your goaltender a lot, but I don’t think it was fair to him the way the team played in front of him,” said Markell.
The Gophers visit New Hampshire for a pair next weekend, while the Buckeyes open CCHA play at Alaska-Fairbanks.