MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s march through March continues.
The defending national champion Gophers won their 18th straight home WCHA playoff game Saturday, reaching the Final Five with a 5-2 win over Michigan Tech at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers have not lost a home game in the opening round since the Final Five format was adopted for the 1992-93 season.
The Gophers trailed early despite getting the game’s first 15 shots on net, then got four consecutive goals — two of them from captain Grant Potulny — to take charge on the scoreboard.
“It’s not a secret that we’ve become a better team since he’s been back,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia of his captain. “It’s just Grant’s time of year.”
The Minnesota goals were sandwiched around a full-on brawl midway through the second period. While the scrum’s origins were murky, its consequences were not: a total of 15 penalties handed out to eight players, including disqualifications for Minnesota’s Matt DeMarchi and MTU’s Clay Wilson. DeMarchi will miss Minnesota’s semifinal game Friday.
“I feed bad because I watched the video between periods, and it [just] looked like a wrestling match to me,” said Lucia, who indicated that freshman P.J. Atherton will replace DeMarchi in the lineup.
Minnesota also lost the services of starting netminder Travis Weber, albeit temporarily. Weber (four saves) suffered an injured finger in the first period and was replaced by Justin Johnson (11 saves) to open the second. He is expected back for Friday’s contest.
During the game proper, Minnesota dominated throughout, though the scoreboard took a while to reflect that fact. For the game, the Gophers totaled 60 shots on goal to Michigan Tech’s 17, and Cam Ellsworth kept the Huskies in the game with saves both routine and spectacular, making 55 in all.
“He can sue us for no support, easy,” quipped MTU head coach Mike Sertich on Ellsworth’s one-man show.
“That’s as good a goaltender as I’ve seen in a long time,” said Lucia.
Minnesota (22-8-9) controlled the opening minutes, swarming the Husky net to the tune at least five grade-A scoring chances in the first 9:00, simultaneously preventing Tech from managing a shot on net.
Despite that, MTU (10-24-4) made its first opportunity count as a turnover at the far blue line turned into a two-on-one for the Huskies. Chris Conner fed Colin Murphy at the top of the circle, and Murphy’s slapshot slipped under the glove of Weber at 8:55.
The goal was Murphy’s 20th of the season, making the sophomore from Fort McMurray, Alb., the first Husky to reach that plateau in eight seasons. Murphy also became MTU’s first 40-point scorer since 1997-98.
Brett Engelhardt nearly increased the Tech lead at 14:00 when he rang a shot off the right post, but the rest of the period was all Minnesota again, culminating in a bit of irony.
On the Gophers’ fourth power play of the period, a scramble in front of the net culminated in Potulny’s eighth goal of the year, a wrister that slipped under Ellsworth with less than a second remaining in the period.
“I heard everybody yell ‘Shoot!’ when [Matt] Koalska had it,” said Potulny of the seconds before his goal. “I thought there was more time.”
“Let’s just say it didn’t help,” said Sertich on the impact of Potulny’s marker.
Potulny’s score reversed a Gopher tendency to give up late tallies — Minnesota came into the evening having allowed 18 goals in the final minute of a period this season. It also was the Gophers’ 24th shot on net of the frame, tying the season high.
Special teams paid off again early in the second for the hosts. On Tech’s second power play, Barry Tallackson started a shorthanded two-on-two and was brought down at the faceoff dot, but fed Gino Guyer unmarked in the slot. Guyer got Ellsworth to commit before easing the puck into the open half of the net, making it 2-1 Gophers.
Tempers shortly flared, and the brawl at the 8:49 mark interrupted play. With at least three separate tussles raging, the officials waited out the fisticuffs before sending a half-dozen players to the box, as well as DeMarchi and Wilson off the ice completely.
After the infractions were sorted out, the Gophers wasted no time extending their lead. Rookie blueliner Chris Harrington did most of the work bringing the puck in from center ice, but Potulny reaped the benefits, getting his second goal of the game on an easy putaway off Harrington’s pass.
Again on the power play, Tallackson extended the lead to 4-1 at 15:01, hammering home a shot from the left side of the slot after Tyler Hirsch’s centering pass banged off Potulny’s stick.
But Engelhardt singlehandedly narrowed the lead back to two 40 seconds later, stealing the puck off a Gopher stick in the defensive zone and stuffing it past Johnson on his second try.
Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek was hooked down by Bryan Perez behind the net midway through the third, then took advantage himself on the power play by tipping Paul Martin’s point shot home to make it 5-2 Gophers. Vanek’s 25th goal of the season tied him with Riddle for the team lead in that category.
For the evening, Minnesota went 3-for-7 with the man advantage.
“I thought our forwards were just phenomenal,” said Lucia. “For whatever reason — maybe because we’re young — when we get on them as coaches, they really respond.”
The sweep gives the Gophers an extra day of rest before the Final Five, which the coaches and players welcomed.
“Nobody wants to come to the rink Sunday when it’s a do-or-die game,” said Potulny.
At the Xcel Center in St. Paul, the Gophers will face Minnesota State Friday night.