MANKATO, Minn. — Minnesota’s special teams powered them to a series sweep over Minnesota State. Thomas Vanek led the Gophers with a hat trick and two assists. Keith Ballard, Danny Irmen and Grant Potulny each had three points, and Kellen Briggs stopped 22 shots in the 10-3 win.
The No. 7 Gophers (13-8-3, 8-7-1 WCHA) were 3-for-7 on the power play Saturday and 5-for-10 on the weekend. They killed all 14 man-advantages for Minnesota State (4-14-4, 3-10-3 WCHA) in the series and scored a shorthanded goal each night.
“That was a big difference in the weekend in how we were able to convert on our power play and score a shorthanded goal every night,” Gopher coach Don Lucia said.
“We had a shorthanded goal each night, we had a few power-play goals,” Ballard said. “So, with the amount of penalties called, special teams played a big role in tonight’s game.”
A questionable call halfway through the second period was the turning point that led to Minnesota’s easy win in front of 5,074 fans.
After scoring to close an early gap, the Mavericks were down only 2-1 and pushing for the tying goal when the controversial call turned the game back in Minnesota’s favor at 10:17 of the second.
On a rush, MSU’s Dana Sorenson was pulled down by Jake Taylor, and Taylor was assessed a minor. However, referee Randy Schmidt made a debatable call by giving Sorenson a diving penalty at the same time.
Instead of a power play for MSU, both teams skated four-on-four, and Minnesota was able to capitalize right after the faceoff by scoring at the 10:29 mark.
Irmen skated past the defense and came in on the net. He put a backhand on goal, and MSU goalie Jon Volp was able to make the stop. But Vanek, following the play, found the rebound and put the puck in.
“To be on a breakaway or a half breakaway and to get pulled down, and to end up even out of that situation was a big momentum turner,” MSU coach Troy Jutting said.
“It was a pivotal moment,” Lucia said.
After a disagreement regarding the officiating, MSU was given a bench minor. The Gophers capitalized on the four-on-three power play as Ballard scored from the right circle for his second goal of the night.
“That’s where those high-end guys really make a difference,” Lucia said. “You get a four-on-three, and you have two first-round draft choices (Ballard and Vanek) passing it back and forth, both with one-timing ability. It makes it tough. Ballard nailed that one home. That’s where those top players really show up is in specialty situations.”
The Gophers were able to add two more goals in the second and four in the third and went on to win 10-3
Ballard and UM’s special teams were the keys to a 2-0 lead for the Gophers after the first period.
On MSU’s first power play, Ballard stole a pass from Minnesota State’s Travis Morin at the blue line. The junior defenseman went in alone on Volp and scored at 3:25 to give his team a 1-0 lead.
“Defenseman kind of telegraphed a little bit and I stepped up,” Ballard said. “I don’t think he saw me. It’s nice when you get a nice little gift like that.”
The Gophers were able to kill four Maverick power plays in the first, including two five-on-three advantages.
Meanwhile, UM was deadly when they had the man-advantage, as Ballard set up the Gophers’ second goal.
Ballard took a shot from the point that was redirected by Vanek in front of the crease. Vanek’s shot was stopped by Volp, but Matt Koalska was there to put home the rebound at 10:53 of the period.
The Mavericks, who went scoreless on 18 shots the night before, appeared snake-bit throughout the period. MSU skaters missed many open chances and couldn’t find loose pucks, and Briggs stopped the five shots he faced in the period.
Things changed in the second as the Mavericks came out with heart and got their first goal of the series at 3:34 of the period.
Morin scored from in front by putting the puck over Briggs’ glove and into the right corner of the net first his fifth goal of the year.
But any chance of a comeback was killed by the diving call and the following altercations midway through the second.
Vanek notched his second goal of the night on a hard shot in the slot during the second period, and he scored on a scramble in the third to cap off his hat trick.
“They’re a very good hockey team,” Jutting said. “And if you make mistakes, they make you pay.”
“It was the kind of weekend you just have to put behind you,” said MSU forward David Backes, who had two assists Saturday.
The Gophers have now won four straight games and are undefeated in their last eight games.
“I’m just happy to go 4-0 in this four-game road segment we just finished,” Lucia said. “Now we only have four more road games, and we’re over .500 in the league for the first time (this season). We’ve still got a long way to go to try to keep moving up in the standings and try to secure home ice.”
“It was our goal to come out of here with four points, and we did that. That’s all that matters, I guess,” Vanek said.
Minnesota State will head to the road next week to take on St. Cloud State. The Gophers will return to Minneapolis for a long home stand that starts with league-leading North Dakota.
“North Dakota’s going to be a test for us,” Ballard said. “It’s one of those games where you see what kind of team you are.”