MINNEAPOLIS — In something out of a goaltender’s nightmare — or an NHL All-Star game — Minnesota and St. Cloud State seemed to play with defenses optional Friday at Mariucci Arena.
The result: 11 goals on 56 shots, and a 7-4 Gopher win that left Minnesota (21-13-3, 14-12-1 WCHA) one point from home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. St. Cloud (18-13-4, 12-11-4) now trails fifth-place Minnesota by a point in the league standings.
“There were some major breakdowns on both sides,” said St. Cloud head coach Craig Dahl, in what may still have been an understatement.
With his team holding a tenuous 4-3 lead entering the third, Gopher sophomore Thomas Vanek scored twice to secure the win. With a three-point night, Vanek crossed the 100-point mark for his Minnesota career.
“I want to be one of the go-to guys,” said Vanek, who leads Minnesota with 21 goals and 40 points. “I think I established that last year, and I have to prove it this year.”
“When Thomas works hard and is relentless, he’s going to get rewarded,” said Minnesota assistant coach Bob Motzko. “Scoring goals is his fuel.”
Vanek’s first goal was a microcosm of the evening. With St. Cloud’s defensemen trying to get up ice, Vanek was left alone behind the play. Matt Koalska got the puck back to Vanek, who, without a Husky nearby, waited before finally sliding it home on goaltender Tim Boron’s left at :44 of the third.
St. Cloud turned the tables while down a man, as Peter Szabo led a shorthanded break and took the shot himself, blasting a slapper home. It was Szabo’s second critical shorthander in three games at Mariucci — the junior scored shorthanded in the third period of an SCSU victory last season.
But a faceoff win led to Minnesota’s crucial sixth goal. Gino Guyer, taking the drop to Boron’s right, outfought his opposite number for the puck and whipped a wrister five-hole to make it 6-4 at 8:18.
Vanek then put the game away. Carrying play down low, Judd Stevens released a backhander that got tied up in Boron’s skates, and Vanek dove in to poke the loose puck home, making it 7-4 and letting the Gophers cruise the rest of the way.
“It was probably a pretty entertaining game to watch, on the part of the fans,” said Dahl, whose Huskies can still gain the WCHA’s final home-ice slot with a win Saturday.
“We’ve got to rebound,” said SCSU’s Matt Hendricks. “We’ve been doing it all season, and we’ve lost the last four games now. … We’ve got to look deep inside ourselves.”
The Gophers played without the services of Don Lucia, as the Minnesota head coach watched from the press box after surgery earlier in the week. Motzko ran the team from the sidelines.
“When [Lucia] was yelling, I turned down the sound,” Motzko quipped.
The first 10 minutes were oddly disjointed, considering that they were played in March rather than October. A rough on Joe Jensen put Minnesota on the power play just over a minute in, and the Gophers capitalized. Defenseman Chris Harrington fired the puck toward the net, where captain Grant Potulny redirected it far-side for his 13th goal of the season at 2:27.
On a subsequent St. Cloud power play, quick puck movement in the zone gave Jensen and Dave Iannazzo open looks in the slot, but both drew iron behind Minnesota netminder Kellen Briggs.
With under five minutes left, a pretty give-and-go netted the Gophers a 2-0 lead. Barry Tallackson took a return pass from Tyler Hirsch for a wrister under the crossbar that Boron had no chance to stop.
After falling behind 14-5 in shots on goal, the Huskies regrouped and ran off 11 straight, tying the game. Early in the second, after point-blank chances from Matt Hendricks and Jensen, the adrenaline rose a notch when Briggs came 40 feet out to play a loose puck, losing his stick in the process.
A minute later, SCSU scored a goal which seemed pedestrian by comparison to what came before. Picking up a loose puck, Andy Lundbohm circled out to the right faceoff dot and simply wristed a shot past Briggs’ blocker, making the score 2-1 at 3:17.
The Huskies knotted it up at 9:10. Keith Ballard’s pass was intercepted inside the blue line by Nate Raduns, who fired on net, and Konrad Reeder redirected it past Briggs.
Seemingly in disarray, though, the Gophers responded. Parked alongside the net, Vanek stuffed a shot toward Boron. The puck bounced high in the air, and a charging Matt Koalska got his 11th goal of the year when the puck bounced off him — or Boron, or both — and in, making it 3-2.
Briggs bailed out his teammates a moment later. Billy Hengen got behind the Gopher defense, but Briggs went side-to-side to stop his wrister. That paid off after Guyer led a shorthanded break up the right wing and fed Danny Irmen, who unleashed a shot that Boron could not stop, particularly after one of his defensemen crashed into him.
Incredibly, the Huskies got back within a goal seconds later. With the puck pinballing around the slot, Garrett Larson picked it up and released a shot that dribbled under Briggs to make it 4-3 at 12:03.
Skating four-on-three, Potulny thought he had scored the fifth Gopher goal when Boron gloved his shot along the goal line and appeared to carry it into the net. Television replays were inconclusive, and the only opinion that mattered — that of referee Derek Shepherd — was that there was no goal.
“We got no flow going the first two periods,” said Motzko. “That seemed to get us out of our rhythm, and maybe it got the game out of its rhythm.”
The two teams face off again Saturday, which will be Minnesota’s Senior Night (though the game starts at 2:05 p.m. CT), and the last regular-season game of the year for both squads.