MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday night’s game between North Dakota and Minnesota looked very much like Friday’s series opener.
In a contest which mirrored the scoreboard from a night earlier, Minnesota got down one early, then rallied for four consecutive goals in a 6-3 win.
With the game tied at two entering the third period, the Minnesota penalty-killers provided the spark. Jake Fleming scored shorthanded just 33 seconds in, and the Gophers never looked back.
“It was a turnover, and [Jon] Waibel picked it up,” said Fleming. “I was praying he got it to me, because I knew I was in.”
The first line provided much of the offense for Minnesota (12-6-5, 7-4-3 WCHA). Troy Riddle ended a goal-scoring drought with two markers, Matt Koalska assisted on four scores and Thomas Vanek had two assists to go with an empty-netter in the final minute of play.
“The top line has to produce,” said Gopher coach Don Lucia. “You can’t go games and games without scoring a goal.”
“You get some games, you think things are going well, and they go in off your skates, off your shinpads, off your face,” said Riddle of ending his skid. “All you can control is how hard you work.”
Showing offense that was absent in the first game, the Gophers outshot North Dakota (19-2-3, 9-2-3 WCHA) by a margin of 39-27, including a 13-8 edge in the decisive third period.
The loss ended UND’s unbeaten streak at a school-record 16 and kept the Sioux one point back of idle Colorado College for the WCHA lead; coach Dean Blais was philosophical.
“I knew it was going to happen sometime,” Blais said. “We weren’t going to run the table.”
Still, sloppy play bedeviled the Gophers early, starting with a giveaway on the power play that Kevin Spiewak turned into a point-blank wrister. Travis Weber (24 saves) closed the pads to deny the chance.
But later in that same power play — set up by a Zach Parise hook — Vanek’s redirection attempt was saved by Jake Brandt (33 saves), but the puck dribbled free, giving Riddle enough of a look to beat a downed Brandt at 10:31 for his 14th goal of the year.
The tally was just the second in the last 13 games for Riddle, who totaled 12 in the Gophers’ first nine contests.
The Sioux knotted the score at 12:22. Coming down the left side, James Massen stopped and hit David Lundbohm a moment after Lundbohm slipped his defender in the slot. Lundbohm beat Weber to his glove side to make it 1-1.
Four minutes later, Parise redeemed himself for his penalty with his 15th goal of the season. Brandon Bochenski collected the puck to the right of the goal and dropped it for Parise, who cut across the goalmouth and deposited the puck in the net.
A hold on defenseman David Hale put Minnesota up a man late in the period, and the advantage became a five-on-three when Matt Jones crosschecked Vanek in the slot, but the Sioux stood firm as the Gophers were unable to make an entry pass.
Early in the second, North Dakota missed a chance on a two-on-one when Bochenski’s wrister sailed five feet over the crossbar, and on a Minnesota power play Weber was forced to stave off a breakaway by Ryan Hale after Chris Harrington shoveled an attempted pass into his skates.
However, Minnesota picked it up a notch late in the second, and a tic-tac-toe play by the first line tied the contest again at 17:42.
On that play, Koalska fed Vanek behind the UND net, and Vanek immediately hit Riddle, parked to Brandt’s right. Riddle’s one-timer dented twine high to the near side for his second goal of the game.
A tripping call against Gopher defenseman Matt DeMarchi put North Dakota up a man late in the frame, with the penalty carrying over to start the third.
With seconds remaining on the power play, though, a Gopher two-on-two turned into a one-on-one for Fleming when his defender slipped down. Fleming went to his backhand, roofing the puck to make it 3-2 Minnesota with his fourth goal of the season.
“That was by far the biggest goal,” said Riddle. “I think I was more excited for that than for either of mine. … We sent a message that we weren’t going to lie down in the third like we did the last two games.”
A slash on Matt Greene put Minnesota on its fifth power play, and Gino Guyer converted to give the hosts a two-goal lead. Keith Ballard let go a shot through traffic that tipped off Guyer’s stick and beat a screened Brandt inside the left post at 13:29.
At 16:34, UND took its best shot at rallying. Riddle was issued a borderline goaltender-interference penalty, and Brandt left the Sioux net for a six-on-four. Waibel confounded that plan with a shorthanded empty-netter to make it 5-2.
UND defenseman Andy Schneider scored to pull the Sioux within two again, but with Brandt back out Vanek dribbled a roller in from the red line to produce the final 6-3 margin.
After UND’s win Friday, the motivation edge might have belonged to Minnesota.
“[The Gophers] definitely needed this win,” said Lundbohm. “Their older guys were challenged, and they came through. … We wanted to get the sweep and get on top of the league, but we’re going to take the positives out of this.”
“We needed the split coming in,” said Blais, “especially given that some people criticized our schedule, saying we’d only beaten unranked teams.”
Lucia, meanwhile downplayed the significance of beating the top-ranked team in the nation, even if it was an archrival.
“We’re playing for points,” he said, “and there’s a lot of great teams in our league.”
Minnesota takes next weekend off before hosting Minnesota State for a pair on Jan. 24-25. North Dakota visits Alaska-Anchorage next Friday and Saturday.