MINNEAPOLIS — Heart, passion, spark: by whatever name, Minnesota may have found it.
The Golden Gophers, who relinquished two-goal leads twice last weekend, could have gone down the same road against Michigan Tech Friday. With Minnesota up 3-1, Tech’s Colin Murphy scored in the final minute of the second period, raising the specter of collapses past.
Minnesota, though, scored three unanswered goals in the third period to overpower the Huskies 6-2. Troy Riddle had the key goal just 1:35 into the third, and defenseman Keith Ballard notched a pair of assists — including the lone helper on Riddle’s tally — in his first game back from a leg injury.
“I said a few things in the locker room,” said Ballard of his leadership role. “But you can say all you want, but if you don’t go out on the ice and do it, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“That’s Keith at his best,” said Minnesota assistant coach Bob Motzko. “He was very good defensively and great offensively.
“He’s physically a specimen, so he can withstand a couple of weeks off. … He’s a superior athlete.”
The victory ended a five-game winless streak for Minnesota (3-7-1, 2-6-1 WCHA), and extended the Gophers’ unbeaten string against MTU to 15 games.
“I think there’s a little excitement in the locker room right now,” said Gopher netminder Justin Johnson, who recorded his first win of the season. “I think we really have to put our foot down, and I think we have. We’ve said ‘Enough is enough.’”
Meanwhile, Murphy’s goal represented the first point in four games for the high-powered second line of Michigan Tech (2-6-3, 0-5-2 WCHA), which saw its own winless skid reach six.
“To be honest with you, we need four lines going,” said Tech head coach Jamie Russell. “We had some guys who didn’t fulfill their roles.”
The Gophers buzzed the net early, but had no serious scoring chances until midway through the first period, when a Clay Wilson trip put Minnesota on its first power play. The Gophers’ snakebitten ways resumed, though, as four power-play shots on goal — and three wristers over the cage — produced no scoring.
A second Minnesota power play was cut short by a hustle play from MTU sniper Chris Conner, who beat Mike Vannelli to a loose puck and was hauled down to cut short his shorthanded breakaway at the 16-minute mark.
The Gophers, though, recovered to take the lead a minute later. Skating four-on-four, Ballard stole the puck at center ice and fed a streaking Gino Guyer, whose wrist shot gave Bryce Luker (30 saves) very little chance, making it 1-0 Minnesota.
“He was tremendous,” said Russell of Luker. “He doesn’t have good stats because we’re not playing well as a team in front of him.”
Four minutes into the second, Gopher sophomore Thomas Vanek was the playmaker. On a delayed penalty, Vanek led a two-on-one before hitting Matt Koalska at the edge of the crease for the easy tap-in.
An ill-advised high-stick by Minnesota’s Jake Fleming put Tech up a man three minutes later, but the Husky power play — which struggled most of the game just to gain the offensive zone — could not put a shot on goal.
After good chances for Minnesota’s Danny Irmen and Vanek could not be converted, MTU’s Jon Pittis narrowed the lead at 14:13. Husky defenseman John Scott dug the puck out of the corner behind the Minnesota net, and Pittis beat Johnson (16 saves) just under the crossbar to make it 2-1.
Fleming restored the two-goal lead for Minnesota a minute later, circling in front of the net and putting a backhander high over Luker’s glove in traffic, but Murphy’s goal — a pinpoint wrister that came just after another ineffective power play — seemed to put Tech back in it.
That was when the Gophers shut the door. Riddle scored off his own rebound after Ballard’s centering pass to open the third period, making it 4-2. The goal, Riddle’s fifth of the year, was Minnesota’s first third-period tally in six games.
Minnesota seemed to seal the deal at 10:02, during another delayed penalty. Blueliner Chris Harrington’s wrister off Barry Tallackson’s assist gave the Gophers a 5-2 lead, but it wasn’t until a goal for the Huskies’ Taggart Desmet was waved off three minutes later that Minnesota fans could breathe easy.
Desmet’s shot clanged off the right post and somehow rolled directly along the goal line, where Johnson gloved it. Referee Derek Shepherd signaled the score, then reversed his decision a moment later after consulting the goal judge.
Vannelli notched his first collegiate goal at 18:19 on the power play to cap the scoring — but not the action, which continued after the final horn.
Tempers boiled over, pushing and shoving commenced, and Scott was hit with a five-minute major and game disqualification for leaving the bench to join the altercation. He will miss Saturday’s 7:05 p.m rematch.
“They challenged us at the end of the game,” said Ballard, “and we didn’t back down. … Maybe that’s a sign that we’re getting more passionate.”
Questionable for Saturday is Gopher forward Jon Waibel, who left the game for X-rays after a hard, but legal, hit up high from Tech’s Brandon Schwartz. His status is not yet known.