ST. PAUL, Minn. — Four times in the regular season, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota met, and four times the Bulldogs walked away winners.
Friday at the WCHA Final Five, the Gophers made sure the fifth game would be different.
Down two goals early, Minnesota reversed the momentum on a pair of goals by Danny Irmen, then pulled away late for a 7-4 win. Thomas Vanek scored the game winner early in the third period.
The victory sends the Gophers into the WCHA title game against North Dakota, and also appears to guarantee Minnesota a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament regardless of Saturday’s outcome.
“I thought we came out and played extremely poor in the first period,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, “but we played much better in the second and third periods and got some pucks deep.”
“We had a good first period, and then they got that goal … and we just didn’t come out for the second and third periods,” said UMD’s Evan Schwabe.
“That goal” was Irmen’s second of the game, a shorthander that tied the game and put Minnesota in control.
“They got going … and they outworked us, outskated us, outhit us, out-everythinged us,” said Schwabe.
Minnesota earned repeated scoring chances off UMD turnovers, and the Gophers seemed to catch the Bulldog defenders off-guard with puck movement in the offensive zone.
“You’re not going to win playing defense like that,” said Sandelin. “When [the forwards] don’t do their job, it puts a lot of pressure on your D, and when they don’t do their job, it ends up in your net.”
The Bulldogs played without the services of Tyler Brosz and Tim Hambly, the latter a key piece of the defense.
“It’s important to be healthy this time of year,” said Lucia. “When you’re missing [defensemen], it affects your entire game.”
For Minnesota, the matchup wasn’t just a chance for revenge, or even a step toward the Broadmoor Trophy. It was a measuring stick.
“I really felt this was an important game for us,” said Lucia. “If we couldn’t beat Duluth tonight, it’s not a good indication of what we’ll be able to do next weekend [in the NCAAs].”
With Minnesota down 3-1 in the waning moments of the first, Gino Guyer fired a shot off the outside of the net that rebounded to Irmen off the backstop. The freshman put a backhander under Isaac Reichmuth at 19:24 to narrow the lead to one.
Still, the first period was dominated by Duluth, but the Gophers stunned the Bulldogs with a shorthanded goal to tie the game at 4:51 of the second. Keith Ballard fed a 75-foot lead pass for Irmen, who deked and scored off a backhander.
Fate intervened for the Gophers at 14:25 of the second. Jake Miskovich’s pass ticked off Ryan Swanson’s stick in front of the UMD goal, and Ryan Potulny swept in and deposited the puck under the crossbar to give Minnesota its first lead at 4-3.
UMD drew even early in the third period, when Justin Williams walked in for a backhander that trickled in at :40. That gave the Bulldogs a last spark, but Vanek reclaimed the Gopher lead for good at 3:45.
Parked to the left of the goalmouth, the sophomore took a pass from Matt Koalska and potted his 23rd goal of the year into the open net.
The Gophers added the insurance goal at 14:41. Jon Waibel feathered a pass to Andy Sertich on the far side of the net, and Sertich easily put the puck home to make it 6-4.
Duluth pulled Reichmuth with two and a half minutes to go for a six-on-four, but Barry Tallackson skated the length of the ice for the empty-netter.
“They’re [UMD] as good a team as we’ve played this year,” said Lucia. “What a great weekend to get us ready for next week — playing the [No. 4] and No. 1 teams in the nation.”
A frenzied opening period got the game started, with the Bulldogs taking a 1-0 lead at 2:08. Tim Stapleton saw Luke Stauffacher unmarked on the back side, and Stauffacher fired the pass inside the right post.
UMD made it 2-0 with a shot off the stick of Schwabe, who worked a give-and-go with Jesse Unklesbay for a shot that handcuffed Briggs at 9:06.
The Gophers rallied on the power play minutes later. Vanek threaded a pass to Troy Riddle at the far side, and Riddle’s wrister beat Reichmuth, who had no chance to get across the crease in time.
But Schwabe restored the two-goal lead with his second goal of the game 18 seconds later. Williams dug the puck out inside the Minnesota blue line, and a streaking Schwabe faked a shot then fired it around Briggs.
Reichmuth stopped Vanek alone in front at the 17-minute mark as the Gophers picked up steam again, briefly preserving the two-goal lead before Minnesota took charge.
For Minnesota-Duluth, it was a disappointing loss in a game the Bulldogs controlled early, against an opponent they handled — sometimes easily — four previous times this season.
“We’ve got to forget this game tonight,” said Sandelin, “and focus on tomorrow. That’s all we can control.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, has the challenge of North Dakota.
“North Dakota’s been, probably without question, the most consistent team in college hockey this year,” said Lucia.
Minnesota and North Dakota will meet for the WCHA championship at 7 p.m. CT Saturday, preceded by the 2 p.m. consolation between Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota-Duluth.