MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday night at Mariucci Arena, Michigan Tech played its game to a T, bottling up Minnesota for most of the contest, frustrating the Gophers with penalty-killing and shot-blocking.
But it took only 29 seconds for the Gophers to get the win anyway.
Minnesota (7-3-3, 4-2-2 WCHA) scored a bang-bang pair of goals midway through the third period, erasing a razor-thin Tech lead for a 2-1 victory. Defenseman Paul Martin scored the tying goal, then set up Dan Welch for the winner moments later.
“The bottom line is that your big-time players have to make plays,” said Don Lucia, who remained unbeaten against MTU as Minnesota head coach (10-0-2). The Gophers extended their home winning streak against the Huskies to 11, sweeping the teams’ four-game regular-season series.
Chris Conner continued his outstanding play for Michigan Tech (1-7-3, 0-6-2 WCHA). The diminutive freshman scored the Huskies’ only goal — unassisted while on the penalty kill — and generated several other chances with speed and a nose for the puck.
“Speed adds another element to your game, and that was a priority in recruiting,” said Tech head coach Mike Sertich. “Sometimes, programs are reluctant to recruit guys based on their height. … They don’t measure heart.”
As on Friday, the Gophers controlled play for most of the first period. Unlike Friday, the Huskies left for the locker rooms with the lead.
Minnesota had the best chances in the early going, although neither team established an offensive flow. Gino Guyer had a couple of whacks at a loose puck after a rebound, and Jon Waibel couldn’t control an outlet pass for what would have been a breakaway.
Instead, Michigan Tech took the lead with help from an unexpected source: special teams.
Two Husky power plays had collectively generated one shot on goal, but with Tech’s Clay Wilson off for obstruction-holding, MTU turned its shorthanded defense into offense.
Conner stole the puck from Chris Harrington at the blue line and went end-to-end, deking Travis Weber (15 saves) for Tech’s first shorthander of the year at 15:07.
The goal, Conner’s fifth, also put the winger from Westland, Mich., into the team lead in points.
MTU nearly turned the Gopher power play upside down again early in the second. With Jon Pittis off for slashing, Weber overskated the puck on a dump-in, leaving Tech’s Bryan Perez an empty net. Perez, though, pushed the puck wide from the right faceoff circle.
Shortly thereafter, Brandon Schwartz forced Weber to make a tough stop on a rebound, producing another Husky power play as Mike Erickson picked up an interference penalty. But a shorthanded break nullified the advantage when Justin Brown slashed Troy Riddle going to the net.
Freshman Nick Toneys pulled down Matt Koalska on a three-on-two Gopher rush to generate Minnesota’s seventh power play in the last minute of the period, but netminder Cam Ellsworth (30 saves) and the Tech penalty kill again frustrated the Gophers, blocking long shots and denying chances up close.
Shots on goal after two periods favored Minnesota 18-9, but many of those were perimeter shots despite the Gophers’ five power plays in the middle frame.
“After the second period, we talked about changing our [shooting] lanes,” said Martin. “And that’s what we did.”
First, though, Ellsworth kept the Gophers off the board one more time at the four-minute mark, snapping shut the wickets on Riddle’s spinning wrister from the slot. Riddle was kept off the scoreboard for the evening, ending his scoring streak at 13 games.
“That’s why he’s in there,” said Sertich of Ellsworth’s performance.
But the Gophers finally broke through on their eighth power play, set up when Chris Durno hauled down Keith Ballard coming up the right-wing boards. On the man-advantage, Martin’s slapshot from the point got through traffic and into the net at 9:09.
“I think it hit someone, or something,” said Martin. “We were so frustrated, Keith and myself [on the power play]. … All we had to do is try to sneak a puck into the net.”
Martin’s goal gave the Gophers an obvious spark, and Minnesota stunned its visitors again seconds later. Martin keyed the play, weaving in through the defense and feeding Welch for a shot which seemed to change direction right off the stick, beating Ellsworth for the 2-1 lead.
“I can’t say enough about Paul Martin,” said Welch. “That’s why he’s an All-American candidate.”
The Huskies were unable to generate a shot after pulling Ellsworth late, and in the end, a quality effort was still a difficult loss for MTU.
“They’re down,” said Sertich of his team, which remained winless in WCHA play this season. “We’ve expended a lot of emotion and energy the past month … and have nothing to show for it.”
The Gophers, meanwhile, were relieved as much as anything.
“I don’t think we played poorly,” said Lucia. “I give credit to Michigan Tech. They got us to play their game.
“We had to get four points this weekend — this was a big series for us.”
Minnesota hosts Michigan State and Michigan in the College Hockey Showcase next Friday and Saturday. Michigan Tech gets a week off before hosting Wayne State for a pair.