MINNEAPOLIS — After Friday night, Minnesota and St. Cloud State knew they’d be seeing each other again next weekend. The only question was where.
Saturday’s matinee determined the answer: Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena. The weekend finale provided some of the sharp play expected when the series began, ending in a 4-2 Gopher win.
Minnesota (22-13-3, 15-12-1 WCHA) held a one-goal lead for most of the third period before Keith Ballard put the game away at 15:17.
Barry Tallackson, off a Tyler Hirsch pass, drove in and dumped the puck for a trailing Ballard. His slapshot was hammered high to the far side for the insurance goal.
The tally was a kind of redemption for Ballard, who was involved in both St. Cloud goals — one when a pass from Kellen Briggs hopped his stick in the defensive zone, and the other after Ballard’s stick broke on a clearing attempt.
In previous years, the blueliner might have had trouble battling back, but this is a more experienced version.
“I was a little frustrated,” said Ballard, “and me two years ago would have gotten even more frustrated. And I thought about it .. and that doesn’t help the team.”
With the win, the Gophers finished fifth in the WCHA, earning home ice in the first round of the playoffs. They will host the Huskies (18-14-4, 12-12-4), who finished sixth after entering the weekend in fourth place.
As on Friday, Minnesota built an early lead, then watched St. Cloud chip away before taking charge late.
“We had a lull in the second period,” said Minnesota assistant coach Bob Motzko, “but obviously we’re real happy with the outcome.”
The game featured better play from both sides than in Friday’s checkered effort, in which several goals came off blown coverages or busted plays. Still, it could have been over early if not for Husky netminder Adam Coole, who stopped several breakaways and odd-man rushes en route to 26 saves.
“I hate losing,” said SCSU head coach Craig Dahl, “but I don’t mind losing when you play hard and smart. I can’t stand games like last night, but this was a much better effort.”
With Minnesota leading 2-0 late in the first period, St. Cloud began its push, starting when Briggs’ (25 saves) misconnection with Ballard gave SCSU its first goal at 18:48.
The Gopher goalie came out of the net to play a puck, but his pass up-ice hopped Ballard’s stick to Matt Hendricks, who fired his 13th goal of the season into the empty net as Briggs dove across the crease.
After the expiration of a St. Cloud power play, Ryan Potulny scored his first career goal as a Gopher. Vanek picked up a Ballard pass for a breakaway, and despite a Coole poke-check, Potulny buried the loose puck to make it 3-1 at 3:34.
Potulny scored the goal in his first game back from injury, giving up a potential medical redshirt to join his brother, Grant, for the Gophers’ playoff run.
Matt Koalska’s drive at the nine-minute mark produced another empty net and nearly another goal after Coole went down on the shot, but neither Koalska nor Thomas Vanek could control the bouncing puck.
After an SCSU power play, Coole had to stop a breakaway by Troy Riddle. The junior goaltender from Duluth, Minn., was strong again, ranging 15 feet out of net to stick the puck away from Riddle.
The Huskies made it 3-2 a few minutes later. Ballard’s stick broke in half on a pass up-ice, giving Bille Luger and Dave Iannazzo a two-on-one with the stickless defenseman. Iannazzo took Luger’s pass and beat Briggs low at 17:21 for his 16th goal of the year.
Shots on goal after two periods were even at 20.
Midway through the third, Briggs was tested by Konrad Reeder, with a tip in front, and then Billy Hengen, whose point-blank wrister Briggs gloved with a flourish to hold the Gopher lead.
“The best thing about Kellen was that he was excellent in the third,” said Motzko of Briggs’ generally steady effort.
In the early going, the Gophers opened scoring at 6:38 of the first period. Jake Fleming cut to his right after crossing the blue line and fired a shot from the circle that nicked Coole’s arm and bounced in. Grant Potulny earned the single assist.
Minnesota doubled the lead three minutes later. On the power play, Chris Harrington fed Danny Irmen on the left side, and Irmen edged to the faceoff dot, whipping a wrister that went over Ryan Lamere and Coole for a 2-0 lead at 9:55.
With Coole down after clearing a loose puck, Vanek almost made it 3-0 at the 15-minute mark. His shot from above the circles was on an open net, but Husky defenseman Colin Peters got a stick on it to avert the score.
A three-on-one break with three minutes left in the first period led to a Gopher power play when T.J. McElroy crosschecked Gino Guyer after the shot, but no scoring resulted.
“I didn’t like either goal in the first period,” said Coole. “I don’t think they were bad goals, per se, but … those are the goals I’ve got to stop next weekend.”
He’ll get that chance. The two teams meet Friday at 7 p.m. CT at Mariucci Arena for Game 1 of their WCHA playoff series.