MINNEAPOLIS — Playing its home opener six months after claiming its first national championship in 23 years, Minnesota celebrated before the game by unfurling the NCAA title banner — then celebrated again on the ice, utterly dominating Alabama-Huntsville en route to a 12-1 victory Friday night at Mariucci Arena.
“It got everybody pumped up,” said Minnesota’s Troy Riddle of the pregame ceremony, which included an appearance by injured forward Grant Potulny, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2002 championships, at the podium as the banner was unfurled.
It must have. Minnesota’s offensive output was staggering: Riddle, Jon Waibel and Thomas Vanek all netted hat tricks as the Gophers controlled play at both ends of the ice all evening.
“That’s a first for me,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia on the trio of hatters.
With plenty of credit to go around for the Gophers, the first line of Vanek, Riddle and Matt Koalska shone brightest, totaling seven goals and seven assists for 14 points. Meanwhile, Travis Weber was solid in net, stopping 17 of 18 shots.
Minnesota’s forwards consistently outskated the Charger defense, which was unable to keep the Gopher attackers away from the slot. Special teams also hurt UAH, which permitted two Gopher power-play goals, a shorthander and another near-SHG while failing to score on its own power play until the outcome was no longer in doubt.
“It’s frustrating because we know we’re a hell of a lot better team than that,” said UAH assistant coach Lance West. “Those guys have to check themselves … they got beat everywhere on the ice.”
“I don’t think that was indicative of them,” Lucia agreed. “But it was our home opener, and our guys played with energy and enthusiasm, and that’s a nice way to raise a banner.”
Minnesota (3-1-2) was a step quicker than the Chargers from the outset, getting the first few shots on goal as a crosscheck by Jeff Winchester put the Gophers on the power play. Minnesota wasted no time converting, going up 1-0 at 4:57 as Waibel deflected home a shot from sophomore transfer Jerrid Reinholz.
Shortly thereafter, UAH (0-5-0) had a chance to reverse the momentum with a turnover at center ice. The giveaway resulted in a two-on-one for the Chargers, then a power play on a trip to break up the scoring attempt.
But the Chargers could not convert, and a few minutes later Reinholz and Waibel hooked up again for Minnesota’s second goal; this time Waibel banged home Reinholz’s cross-ice pass on an odd-man rush. The slapshot beat UAH netminder Mark Byrne to his right at 14:58 for Waibel’s second goal of the game and the year.
Gopher defenseman Keith Ballard went off for tripping late in the period, but Alabama-Huntsville generated little offense with the man-advantage, and that, it turned out, was more or less the Chargers’ last chance to stay in it.
UAH gave up a third goal just after the penalty expired. Freshman Vanek centered to Koalska — he of the game-tying goal in last year’s title game — and Koalska leaned out to tip it past Byrne to make it 3-0 Gophers at 1:16 of the second.
Koalska returned the favor minutes later, feeding Vanek from behind the net for a stuff through the five-hole at 10:56.
The floodgates opened fully after that, with Minnesota scoring three more goals in the next seven minutes to turn the matchup into a rout. Vanek was the force behind the fifth goal of the game, beating the defense wide of the net and feeding the puck back to Riddle just outside the crease for the putaway.
Riddle scored the next one without much help, taking a lead pass at center ice and outracing Charger blueliner Winchester for a clean one-on-one and his seventh goal of the year at 16:10. And Waibel got the crowd roaring again by finishing his first career hat trick, slipping the puck home on a shorthanded two-on-one break at 17:47 to make it seven-nothing.
“Everybody was a little tight in the first,” said Riddle. “The key [in the second period] was that we passed a lot better.”
Freshman Scott Munroe replaced Byrne in the UAH nets for the third period, but the results were much the same as Riddle tallied a power-play goal just :36 in to finish his hatter.
The Chargers finally broke the shutout at 10:53 after a pair of penalties on the Gophers, as Jared Ross tucked the puck into an empty net after a scramble in front to make it 8-1.
Minnesota countered by getting to double digits, thanks to a power-play rocket from the point by Matt DeMarchi and a hummer from the left circle off the stick of Vanek.
The Austrian native then finished his three-goal night with a great solo effort, a sharp, high wrister at 19:15 from the high slot.
“I was lucky,” said Vanek, who refused to take much credit even for his third goal. “I don’t know. I just came down and shot and it went in.”
Ballard finished out the scoring seconds later for the final tally. The 12 goals were Minnesota’s highest scoring output since a 16-2 win over Maine on Jan. 4, 1986.
The Chargers’ third-period play rankled West, who was clearly upset afterwards.
“We had some guys who really stopped playing for us,” said West. “You have to take pride in the uniform, in the university.”
“I’ve been on the other side of these [scores], and it’s not fun,” said Lucia. “But we’ve got guys fighting for spots, and some guys will be out of the lineup tomorrow night.”
The Gophers and Chargers complete the weekend series Saturday night at 7 p.m.