MINNEAPOLIS — There were anxious moments, but in the end Minnesota made the return of captain Grant Potulny a happy occasion.
Coming off a pair of lopsided defeats at Minnesota-Duluth, the Gophers dominated play early, but Alaska-Anchorage rallied to tie it after two periods, forcing Minnesota to try to win the third — something the Gophers haven’t done much this season.
Friday, they did, thanks to Gino Guyer’s tally at 5:36. The goal, the sophomore center’s first in 10 games, gave Minnesota (19-11-3, 12-10-1 WCHA) a 3-2 win at Mariucci Arena.
“We definitely needed this win after getting swept in Duluth,” said Guyer. “We were able to score a goal in the third, which Coach was harping on us about.”
“They [the coaches] have been harping on us all week about winning third periods, and there’s no better opportunity than a tie game,” said Potulny.
The Gopher captain enjoyed a memorable return, scoring early in the second period to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead that looked like it would get wider.
“Grant’s a heart-and-soul type of player,” said Guyer, who centered Potulny’s line. “I’m just so happy he’s back, and that we’re playing together again.”
But the Seawolves (10-16-3, 7-15-3) clamped down, thanks to a strong team defense and Chris King. The senior netminder stopped 17 of 18 shots after Potulny’s goal and 33 of 36 overall, and UAA — itself swept last weekend at Michigan Tech — gave Minnesota all it could handle.
“When you have a weekend like [UAA] had last weekend, teams usually rebound,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “We came out in the first period with great energy, but we had trouble scoring goals … It seems like every night, we can’t get past two going into the third period.”
Each team was without a key offensive cog. For Minnesota, Thomas Vanek missed the game with the same nagging injuries that have cost him significant playing time recently. UAA’s Curtis Glencross sat out the contest due to a game disqualification penalty.
The early going was all Minnesota, which scored just 38 seconds in. Tyler Hirsch outfought Ales Parez for the puck behind King, and fed it to Troy Riddle alongside the crease. Riddle’s high wrister beat the netminder cleanly for his 17th goal of the season.
In the first, Minnesota racked up a 15-4 advantage in shots on goal, but the Gophers couldn’t pad the lead, partly thanks to King. His most notable stop came against Potulny, on a wide-open backhander that King turned aside from the slot.
“I thought Chris King was outstanding all game long, but especially in the first period,” said UAA coach John Hill. “When they scored the quick goal, I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’ but we weathered the storm.”
Potulny’s goal, just 1:36 into the second period, gave Minnesota some breathing room. The senior captain dug the puck out of a crowd in front, wheeled and fired high to King’s right to make it 2-0.
But Minnesota relaxed, and UAA made the hosts pay with two goals. A point shot from Seawolf captain Lee Green landed just behind Kellen Briggs (20 saves), and Chris Fournier poked it across the goal line to narrow the Gopher lead to 2-1 at 9:33. The Anchorage native’s goal was his team-leading 26th point.
Minnesota’s Jon Waibel couldn’t convert a breakaway attempt, and UAA pressed the attack, forcing Briggs to stop tough chances as well. His best save was against Justin Johnson, who picked up a loose puck behind the defense and skated across the crease for a point-blank attempt.
Dallas Steward helped tie the score at 18:10 of the second on the kind of play that gives coaches nightmares. Exiting the penalty box, Steward picked up a puck that hopped two sticks at center ice, and went in alone. His shot rebounded to trailer Justin Bourne, and Bourne bounced the puck over a prone Briggs to make it 2-2.
“They took the game over in the last seven or eight minutes of the second period,” said Lucia.
Minnesota, though, answered the call. Guyer’s goal came immediately after a power play; still effectively a man up, Barry Tallackson fired a wrister on net, and Guyer, sweeping across the slot, put away the rebound to a falling King’s right.
The Seawolves earned a power play with three minutes left, but Fournier was forced to haul down Guyer on a shorthanded breakaway to end that threat. Even then, UAA had a last gasp with King out of the net, when Johnson got free in front, but his shot with three seconds left hit a stick and never reached Briggs.
The loss left UAA mired in a five-game losing streak, but Hill took the result in stride.
“All but the Saturday-night loss at Michigan Tech have been one-goal losses. That doesn’t change the fact that you leave the building with an ‘L,’ but I think that’s indicative of where a young hockey team is at.”
“I thought they played with good energy the last two periods, and I know they’re going to play with great energy tomorrow,” said Lucia of the Seawolves, who appeared to need the first 20 minutes to get their legs after the long flight from Alaska.
For the Gophers, the goal is clear: get into third place, and avoid the play-in game at the Final Five should they win their first-round playoff series. Minnesota is currently fifth.
“If we don’t win games now, we have no chance of finishing in the top three,” said Potulny.
Minnesota and Alaska-Anchorage face off again Saturday night at 7 p.m. Central.