MANKATO, Minn. — The clich is “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Minnesota State proved that Friday night.
The Mavericks, learning from previous games this season that they could rally late, came back from a two-goal deficit against No. 4 ranked Minnesota and won 3-2.
Their initial lesson came on October 25 against St. Cloud. The team went down 5-0 after the first period and were able to tie the game in regulation, only to lose in overtime.
But MSU-Mankato took that knowledge, along with the experience of two other games against Bemidji State where the Mavericks were able to battle back from behind, and turned it into their second ever win against the Gophers and first at home.
“You know, we went down 5-0 [in St. Cloud] and got it back to 5-5,” said MSU coach Troy Jutting. “And I really felt that, even though we lost that game, we’d take something away from it, and that we could come back and play well and do what we needed to do to win games. So I definitely think that helped us and was a learning experience.
“I really think that not only paid dividends tonight but will pay dividends throughout the year.”
MSU was powered by a magnificent performance in goal from junior Jason Jensen. The MSU goaltender stopped 35 shots, including 14 in the third period and several in the final minutes of the game.
“Unbelievable,” Jutting said of Jensen. “That’s about all I can say about his performance tonight. I thought that was as good as it gets. I know Jason’s playing with a lot of confidence, but I also have a lot of confidence in him, and so do his teammates right now. If we give him half a chance, he’s going to stop the puck.”
The Mavericks found themselves trailing 2-0 in the third after allowing two Gopher power-play goals. But they dug deep and found a way to come back.
The rally started as Grant Stevenson scored a four-on-three power-play goal at 6:24. After MSU captain B.J. Abel tried to score on the right side of the goal, the puck bounced over to Stevenson on the left side of the crease.
The sophomore was persistent and, after several attempts, finally stuffed the puck past Minnesota goalie Travis Weber for his team-leading sixth goal of the year.
Only 1:02 later, MSU tied the game. The play started as sophomore Adam Gerlach carried the puck down the middle of the Gopher zone. After being knocked to the ice, Gerlach was able to slide the puck to Stevenson on his left. Stevenson then found Shane Joseph sneaking in on the play. Joseph got the puck all alone in the slot, puck-handled until Weber went down, and slid the puck into the goal past Weber’s outstretched left leg. Joseph’s fourth goal of the year tied the game at 2-2.
After giving up the lead, the Gophers weren’t ready to quit. On the power play 10:45 into the final period, they came up with several quality chances.
However, Jensen kept his team in position to win by stopping Minnesota time and again.
The best save on the power play came as defenseman Judd Stevens snuck down the left side on a backdoor play. He got a pass from the right corner and fired the puck towards the left side of the net. Jensen moved from left to right and made a tremendous kick save to keep the score tied. He also robbed Matt Koalska and Brett MacKinnon on tough chances in the following minutes.
Jensen’s play set the stage for the Mavericks’ third straight goal. 14:12 into the third, MSU’s Brad Thompson won a faceoff in the Gopher zone. Gerlach got the puck back to defenseman Matt Paluczak, who fired a shot on net. The puck went through traffic and beat Weber as the crowd of 4,683 erupted in celebration.
“I just shot,” Paluczak said, “and it wasn’t a hard shot. But we’ve been talking about it all year, about getting it on net. I just threw it on net, and the next thing I knew it went into the net. I was shocked.
“I’ve been kind of snake bitten so far this year — I haven’t had any points. So it was good to get on the board finally, and especially with a big goal like that. It was a great feeling. Definitely a good time to get my first one, I’ll say that.”
But the game wasn’t over then. The Gophers pressed hard with time expiring.
With under four minutes left in the game, Gopher defenseman, and former teammate of Jensen, Paul Martin came down the slot on Jensen. He fired the puck on net, but his shot hit the post and bounced away.
“I played with Paul Martin before; he knows where to shoot on me,” Jensen said. “That’s what makes me scared. He comes bearing down the slot, and it’s not a good thing to see. Thankfully there was enough iron back that it didn’t go in.”
Finally, with a power play chance late, the Gophers pulled Weber and almost tied the game. With 9.8 seconds left, freshman Gino Guyer had a chance on the right side of the net. The puck bounced through the traffic in front of the net and fell to Guyer. He pushed it on net, but after seconds of silence, Jensen stood up with the puck in his glove. He then fell back in exhaustion and rested on the net.
“I didn’t even know where it went,” Jensen said. “I was just kind of diving for any part of the net. When I didn’t hear anything, I looked and it was in my glove.”
MSU was able to win the final faceoff into the corner and time expired to give MSU a 3-2 win, one of the team’s biggest victories at the Division I level.
“It’s a very big one for our program,” Jutting said. “It was nice to do it in front of our own fans. They’ve stuck by us and supported us. It’s nice to get a few wins when your hometown fans see it and get to be a part of it.”
The Gophers had gotten the lead on the power play in the second period. After a scoreless first, team-leading scorer Troy Riddle beat Jensen at 7:52 of the period. Riddle got the puck in the slot and fired it past Jensen glove side for his 10th goal of the year.
However, with four injured forwards out of their lineup, the Gophers got more bad news as Riddle was hurt in the second and missed the rest of the game with a shoulder injury. The team said he would be reevaluated Saturday and was questionable for the final game of the series.
But things were still bright for the Gophers as they went up 2-0 early in the third. Again on the power play, Dan Welch beat Jensen up high 41 seconds into the third for his second goal of the year. But the lead would not prove sufficient for the Gophers.
Jensen downplayed his performance after the game but emphasized the importance of the win.
“You know, it’s the age-old thing: it’s better to be lucky than good,” Jensen said. “I’ll take luck any day. I think it’s kind of my stupidity working for me. It’s one of those deals where it’s a game, so it’s fun to me. I don’t really take into account that they are the national champions. I guess the dumber I keep it, the better.”
Gopher coach Don Lucia was upset with his team’s five-on-five play, but he was proud of his team’s effort in the game.
“Our guys came and gave an effort,” Lucia said. “The guys are doing the best they can right now. We certainly generated enough scoring chances, and on a normal night we might have had four tonight. But we didn’t do much five-on-five.”
“Hey, you tip your hat off,” Lucia added of Jensen’s play. “He played great, and he was probably the difference in the game tonight.”
“Jensen … the guy is unbelievable right now,” Paluczak said. “He’s our MVP right now. Without him, we wouldn’t have won.”
The two teams will finish their series Saturday night.
“The main thing is, we have a game tomorrow that we have to focus for and stay ready for,” Jensen said.