MINNEAPOLIS — At times this season, Minnesota has relied on its stars. At others new faces have taken turns in the spotlight. Friday at Mariucci Arena, there was room in the camera eye for the whole Gopher roster.
Led by four points by Troy Riddle, a playmaking three-point performance from Thomas Vanek and two goals out of rookie Ryan Potulny, Minnesota smothered St. Cloud State 6-1 to win Game 1 of their WCHA first-round series.
“The big guys played, and that’s what your have to have this time of year,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, back on the bench following surgery. “And you talk about someone else stepping up, there was Ryan Potulny.”
“It’s nice to be able to come back and produce right away,” said the younger Potulny, a freshman playing just his second game since returning from injury — and giving up a medical redshirt in the process.
The Gophers won with quickness and hustle, making plays at both ends.
“They had a lot of speed through the neutral zone,” said SCSU head coach Craig Dahl. “And they won a lot of battles in their defensive zone.”
Minnesota caught fire early, scoring five goals in a 25-minutes span during the first and second periods. Husky netminder Adam Coole left the game early in the second, complaining of dizziness.
“He asked to be taken out after the fourth goal,” said Dahl. “He said he couldn’t go any longer.” Coole missed three weeks earlier in the season after sustaining a concussion.
At the other end of the ice, Gopher netminder Kellen Briggs played solidly, stopping 26 of 27 SCSU shots.
The win put Minnesota (23-13-3) within a game of a sixth straight WCHA Final Five. St. Cloud (18-15-4), meanwhile, saw its winless streak reach seven, and its slight NCAA tournament hopes dim.
“It’s staring us in the face now — [seven] games without a win,” said Husky forward Brock Hooton. “You can feel it in the dressing room. It’s tense.”
Leading 2-1 after the first period, the Gophers scored three goals in the second to put it away.
First, Vanek cleaned up a rebound at 6:15. Joey Martin’s slapshot rang off Coole’s skates, and Vanek tucked the puck away for his team-leading 22nd goal.
Vanek then fed Ryan Potulny for the fourth goal at 9:44. Peter Kennedy hit Vanek with a lead pass, and the Austrian phenom turned a 180 to start a two-on-none. Vanek drew Coole and passed across the crease, and Potulny had the putaway to make it 4-1.
“It was a defensive mistake,” said Dahl. “We’ve got two defensemen there and somehow Vanek and [Potulny] blew right by them.”
“I figured he was going to read what the goalie did,” said Potulny, “and the goalie kind of bit of him, so he sent it to me.”
Tim Boron replaced Coole in the St. Cloud net and got started with a spectacular save. With Boron down, Matt Koalska had a sure goal — until Boron threw his left foot in the air to deflect the pinpoint shot away.
Vanek, defenseman Mike Vannelli and Riddle made it 5-1 Gophers at 14:44. After Vanek stole the puck at neutral ice, Vannelli skated behind the net and dropped the puck for Riddle, whose scoop shot beat Boron high to the far side for his 18th goal.
“I thought the play that signified our game tonight was the fifth goal,” said Lucia. “Vanek busted his backside getting on the backcheck.”
Shots on goal in a one-sided second period were 20-10 Minnesota.
In the third, Ryan Potulny closed out the scoring on the power play at 15:21. Fourteen minor penalties were handed out in the final minutes after tempers flared.
If the Huskies were showing spirit with the scrum, Dahl was nonplussed.
“You need to win games, not win little skirmishes,” he said.
The game opened with 10 minutes of defense-first hockey, including only two shots on goal, before the Gophers abruptly struck.
Starting on the left-wing side, Minnesota’s Jake Fleming won the draw back to Vannelli, whose slapshot beat a screened Coole inside the post at 10:02.
St. Cloud answered at 12:30. Peter Szabo, cruising up the right side, fired a shot that banged off Briggs to the opposite side, where Hooton had the putaway into the open net.
Pretty puck movement earned Minnesota a 2-1 lead on the power play. Working the puck low, Vanek found Riddle alongside the net. His pass hit a Husky skate and bounced to Koalska, who had the easy putaway at 14:58, his career-best 12th goal of the season.
Skating four-on-four, Vanek nearly connected with Chris Harrington for a third Gopher goal, but Coole managed to smother the defenseman’s redirection attempt, getting a stick in the head for his trouble.
That presaged the netminder’s departure, and Dahl indicated that it was unlikely Coole would be available Saturday.
For the Huskies, every game is now very much do-or-die, of which the Gophers are well aware.
“It’s 0-0 tomorrow,” said Lucia. “We don’t start with a five-goal lead.”
Minnesota and St. Cloud will play Game 2 at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.