MINNEAPOLIS — The defending national champions were frustrated.
Minnesota entered the Dodge Holiday Classic with a sub-.500 record — a record which included some questionable efforts and some good efforts that went unrewarded. The Gophers had seen their brief win streak stopped in Anchorage, then were forced to wait two weeks to rid themselves of the bad taste.
Saturday night, the victim of the Gophers’ angst was Princeton. Using speed and crisp passing to generate offense almost at will, Minnesota crushed the Tigers 9-0 to advance to the championship of the Dodge Holiday Classic.
The Gophers (8-8-1) outshot the Tigers (5-10-0) by a margin of 40-12, killing five Princeton power plays on which the Tigers managed a total of one shot on goal.
Princeton stayed close for one period, after which the Gophers led just 1-0 despite a 14-3 shot advantage. But Minnesota scored four times in the second to take charge, and added four more in the third to make it a rout.
Fifteen Gophers scored at least one point, led by three apiece from third-line center Jake Fleming, fourth-line winger Andy Sertich and defenseman Jake Taylor.
“We needed a game like that,” acknowledged Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “We got the puck in deep and we got everybody involved in the offense.”
Sertich, who doubled his season goal output to four, helped set the tone with the game’s first tally, and cemented Minnesota’s grip by scoring to give the Gophers a 5-0 lead going into the second intermission.
“Finally,” the sophomore from Coleraine, Minn., sighed. “It felt good to get a few on the board.”
Conversely, it didn’t feel good at all for the Tigers, who had no answer for Minnesota’s team speed. Princeton slowed the Gophers early with big hits, but couldn’t keep the Minnesota offense contained.
Tiger netminder Eric Leroux, who came into Saturday as the only player to see time in the Princeton nets this season, helped keep his team in it for 20 minutes, but couldn’t hold off the Gopher scorers after that.
Leroux allowed five goals on 25 shots before being pulled in favor of Trevor Clay, who gave up three more Minnesota goals and was in turn replaced by freshman B.J. Sklapsky, making his collegiate debut. Sklapsky fared a little better, allowing one goal on five shots in the last 11:35 of the contest.
At the other end, Minnesota goaltender Justin Johnson notched the shutout with 12 saves, most of them routine. The junior, though, understood the plight of his Tiger counterparts.
“You have sympathy for them — after the game,” Johnson said. “But that’s part of the position. Everyone’s going to go through that.”
For the first few minutes, matters didn’t look so grim. Minnesota got the better chances early, but the Tigers’ physical play seemed to unsettle the Gophers. But at 10:48 of the first, Sertich got the hosts on the board by deflecting a Taylor slapshot past Leroux.
The rest of the period — and the game — was all Minnesota, and once the teams took the ice for the second, the scoreboard started to reflect that fact. Defenseman Chris Harrington scored 24 seconds into the middle frame to make it 2-0, and nine minutes later Gino Guyer converted a two-on-one with Grant Potulny to extend the lead to three.
A rebound goal for Thomas Vanek (his team-best 11th) from point-blank range made it 4-0 at 14:03, and less than two minutes later Sertich added his second goal of the game off a Tyler Hirsch rebound.
With the score starting to get out of hand, tempers flared when Tiger defenseman B.J. Mackasey hauled down Matt Koalska alongside the Princeton net, then gave the Gopher center a little extra whack in the head after both players went down.
Vanek took offense, and the ensuing scrum produced a batch of roughing and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties for both sides.
Clay entered the game for Princeton to start the third, but gave up goals to Troy Riddle, Fleming and Judd Stevens in the first 8:25, after which Princeton coach Len Quesnelle substituted Sklapsky, who allowed only a goal by Taylor in the waning minutes.
The win gave Minnesota a title berth against New Hampshire, the team the Gophers beat to win their second straight national championship just eight months ago.
“This is the matchup we wanted, and this is the matchup the crowd wanted,” said Sertich. “I’m sure they want to get us back, and we don’t want to lose our own tournament.
“Our goal was to be above .500 by Christmas,” he added, “and we want to keep the [Dodge Classic] title here.”
Lucia, meanwhile, sounded a warning based on the Gophers’ experience with another national-championship opponent earlier this season.
“When we played Maine [at the Maverick Stampede] at the beginning of the year, they wanted a little piece of us, and we didn’t match their energy. I don’t expect [UNH's effort] tomorrow night to be any different.”
Minnesota will play New Hampshire at 7 p.m. Central time, preceded by the Princeton-Miami consolation game at 4.
“We’re going to find out where we’re at tomorrow,” said Lucia, “against a very good team.”