COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — On Friday, the top-ranked team in the nation was led by the shortest player on the ice.
Five-foot-eight Brett Sterling notched four goals for his first career hat trick as Colorado College, in its first game as the No. 1 team in the country, defeated No. 7 Minnesota, 6-2, in front of a sellout crowd of 7,428 at the Colorado Springs World Arena.
The Tigers, winners of six straight and 13 in a row at home, improve to 22-2-5 overall and 15-1-5 in league play. The Golden Gophers, who came into the contest unbeaten in their last five, drop 12 points behind the Tigers in the conference standings, and are 14-7-7 overall.
“The score looks like this was easy, but we struggled the first part of the game,” said Colorado College head coach Scott Owens. “The difference was Sterling finishing for us.”
Sterling wasted little time getting his career night started. Just 11 seconds into the contest, the freshman from Pasadena, Calif., crashed the net after a sharp-angle shot by junior Tyler Liebel and took advantage of Travis Weber’s inability to cover the puck.
“(Minnesota’s) a hard-working team, and I just got a lot of the breaks tonight,” said Sterling, who now has 17 goals on the season. “Once we got our legs going, we were fine.”
Minnesota responded 2:27 later on the power play. Junior Troy Riddle skated in along the right side and slid the puck across to classmate Grant Potulny. In just his sixth game of the year following an ankle injury, Potulny converted for his first goal since netting the winner in last year’s national championship.
Both teams played evenly until the Tigers regained the lead with just 2.3 seconds left in the first frame. Junior Peter Sejna raced to retrieve the puck behind the net following a shot by senior Tom Preissing and passed the puck out front to Sterling, who deked Weber (25 saves) with a backhand.
The assist marked Sejna’s 30th consecutive game with a point, extending his school record.
“When you’re on the road and you give up a goal like that, it kind of breaks your back a bit,” said Owens. “(Sterling) had ‘goal-finish’ written all over him.”
The Golden Gophers took advantage of another Colorado College penalty 5:43 into the second period to knot the score at two. Junior Paul Martin rifled a shot wide from just inside the blue line, but the puck caromed off the end boards to Riddle, who scored his 20th goal of the season and 18th point in nine meetings versus the Tigers.
Sterling gave Colorado College the lead for good midway through the second stanza with his third goal of the game. Liebel won a battle for the puck at mid-ice and chipped it ahead to Sterling, whose breakaway wrister went in off the left post.
“If I had to guess, it was against Tulsa in the (United States Hockey League) last year,” said Sterling, trying to recall his last hat trick. “I was just lucky enough to get a breakaway.”
In fact, Sterling got a second breakaway seven minutes into the final frame and sealed the Tigers’ win. Just seconds after Sterling left the penalty box for serving a Colorado College too-many-men infraction, he raced in alone to cap a memorable night.
“(Sterling) doesn’t kill penalties for us, and he was one of the guys that was slow coming off the ice,” said Owens, explaining why he chose Sterling to serve the penalty. “We wanted to get him back out there, and we caught a break.”
Sterling’s offensive prowess overshadowed an impressive showing by Tigers’ goaltender Curtis McElhinney. The sophomore netminder did not allow an even-strength goal for the second straight contest, and stopped 30 shots in all, including all 11 in the third period.
McElhinney even chipped in offensively, picking up his first assist of the season on Colorado College’s final goal.
“Curtis stood in there well for us,” said Owens. “I thought the D-corps played well.”