MINNEAPOLIS — In the waning moments of the first period, it looked like a rout. By the time the final horn had sounded, “dogfight” was a much better description.
Up 2-0 in the first period and already sporting a 20-5 advantage in shots on net, Minnesota gave up a last-second goal — literally — to Bemidji State, then had to struggle to hold off the Beavers for the remaining 40 minutes.
The result was a 2-1 Gopher win whose difficulty might have surprised some of the fans in attendance Friday night, but not the head coaches.
“It was exactly the kind of game I expected it to be,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “They’re a good hockey team.”
Bemidji coach Tom Serratore, meanwhile, wasn’t interested in the concept of a “moral victory,” calling the idea a “slap in the face.”
“That’s not even in our vocabulary,” he said of his CHA-leading Beavers. “Those days are over now. We’re here to win hockey games.”
Late in the first period, Minnesota was leading 2-0 and controlling play. That’s when Andy Murray — freshly returned from missing 11 games due to injury — scored the momentum-changing goal for Bemidji.
With less than ten seconds to go in the frame, BSU’s Brendan Cook was left alone at the blue line, and defenseman Peter Jonsson found him for a breakaway. Minnesota netminder Kellen Briggs (21 saves) made a pad stop on Cook’s point-blank shot, but Murray, trailing the play, stuffed the puck five-hole with six-tenths of a second left on the clock.
“I thought it was wedged under my pads,” said Briggs. “I was just mad that it went in.”
“We came out with good jump,” said Lucia, “and we made a bad play to let [Cook] behind us.”
Danny Irmen had put Minnesota on the board at 13:25 of the first period, taking a feed from Brett MacKinnon and stickhandling through traffic before firing a low wrister that beat Bemidji goaltender Grady Hunt (36 saves) to the far side.
Then Keith Ballard — wearing the captain’s ‘C’ in the absence of the injured Grant Potulny — scored on Minnesota’s second power play of the matchup, unleashing a rising slapshot that appeared to hit a body in front and landed just inside the right post to make it 2-0 Gophers at 15:20 of the first.
But Murray’s tally changed the tenor of the game, and surprisingly given the early pace, no more goals graced the scoresheet for the rest of the evening.
Bemidji clamped down on the penalty kill after Ballard’s goal, holding Minnesota’s nation-best power play to four shots on goal on three man-advantages in the last 40 minutes. Hunt did the rest, stopping 22 straight Gopher shots on goal to finish the contest.
But the Gopher defense was equal to the task of protecting the lead, and Briggs made big saves on a point-blank shot by Jean-Guy Gervais and another breakaway for Cook later in the game. Occasionally sloppy puckhandling by Minnesota led to a few anxious moments for Gopher fans, including a third-period shot by Murray after a giveaway in front of the Minnesota net.
In the waning minutes, the Gophers used a sparkling penalty kill, followed by a frantic defensive effort with Hunt off the ice for an extra skater, to secure the win.
Gino Guyer barely missed a shot on the empty net with 30 seconds left, leaving the outcome in doubt right until the end.
“We really did play our game,” said Serratore. “We weathered the [storm] that first period. … We had a few chances to win the game, and that’s all you can ask.”
“I think they raised their game [in the second and third periods] more than anything we did,” agreed Lucia. “The bottom line is, a win’s a win.”
The Gophers played without the services of Thomas Vanek, who missed the game with an unspecified injury. Lucia said he did not expect the Austrian sniper to be available for the rematch.
Minnesota (17-9-3) and Bemidji State (15-8-2) meet again Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. CT at Mariucci Arena.