ST. PAUL, Minn. — If the first game of the season is any harbinger, Minnesota will be in fine form this year.
In a marquee matchup of the last two teams to win an NCAA championship, Minnesota and Denver struggled a bit early, thanks to the rust of a season opener, and to a pile of penalties called under the NCAA’s new emphasis on obstruction and interference.
In the end, the Gophers one-upped the defending champion Pioneers, taking a 5-2 decision in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game on the strength of a hat trick by Ryan Potulny. Potulny’s feat was something like hockey’s version of hitting for the cycle, as he scored on the power play, shorthanded and finally into an empty net to seal the win at the Xcel Center.
“I was out there at the right times, and just found opportunities,” said the sophomore.
Minnesota also got a sterling effort from netminder Kellen Briggs, who was tested more and more often as the game went along. Briggs stopped 32 of 34 Denver shots, including 18 in the third period.
“It was a great start for us, and you can start with Kellen,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia.
“We had a lot of guys sell out, going down and blocking shots,” said Briggs. “It was a total team effort.”
Denver lost despite a two-goal performance from Jon Foster, who kept the Pioneers in it with timely scoring.
Trailing 3-1 midway through the third, Denver got within one after a Minnesota infraction for too many men on the ice. Foster was the hero, as he got loose on the back door and swatted home a pass from Carle to Briggs’ right at 10:56 for his second goal of the game.
But that was as close as the Pioneers got. Freshman Brett Borgen gave Minnesota breathing room with less than five minutes to go, chipping in a loose puck for a 4-2 edge. In the last minute-plus, Potulny flipped home the empty-netter for the hat trick and the final margin.
Even late, Lucia relied on his freshmen. The Gophers, who lost half their scoring in the offseason to graduation and early departures, skated seven rookies Saturday, one on each forward line and defensive pairing.
“I asked [assistant coach] Bob [Motzko], should I put some more experienced guys out there [late],” said Lucia. “He said leave the freshmen in.”
Early in the first, penalties less than a minute apart by Denver defensemen Brett Skinner and Matt Carle put Minnesota on a five-on-three. A diagonal pass from blue-chip blueliner Alex Goligoski found Potulny just above the goal line, and he beat Denver netminder Glenn Fisher (30 saves) five-hole at 3:24 to make it 1-0.
With three minutes left in the period, Minnesota’s Barry Tallackson nearly made it a two-goal lead after taking a pass behind the defense at the blue line, but Fisher blocked his backhander.
The defending national champions mustered little offense early despite three power plays. Denver managed five shots on goal in the first frame to Minnesota’s 13.
At 2:06 of the second, Minnesota extended the lead. A shot by freshman Derek Peltier banged off a Denver body, and then off the skate of DU blueliner Andrew Thomas before stopping in the slot. Winger Tyler Hirsch zipped in and put the puck inside the left post.
The Gophers continued to take penalties without paying the price, but nearly paid for a Denver mistake after the Pioneers’ Thomas went off for holding the stick. Shorthanded, DU had three scoring chances, the last a nifty deke by sophomore Adrian Veideman for a point-blank shot that Briggs stuffed.
But Denver got back in it. Skating five-on-five, top returning scorer Gabe Gauthier intercepted a pass in the defensive zone and fed Foster, who got behind the defense and unleashed a wrist shot that went five-hole at 9:44.
Just after the Pioneer goal, another power play — off a Goligoski penalty for interference — could have drawn Denver even. Instead, Potulny picked off Skinner’s clearing pass in his own zone and, with no other defender in the area, scored off the resulting one-on-one at 10:28 to make it 3-1 Gophers.
“Some of the young guys have to learn what a penalty is,” said Lucia, who was nevertheless pleased with Goligoski’s play.
“He’s going to be a really good player,” said Lucia, “though we don’t want him leading our team in penalties, that’s for sure.”
The parade to the box continued unabated, as Minnesota earned consecutive power plays in the waning minutes of the second. The Pioneers killed both, but couldn’t score on a five-on-three of their own later in the period.
For the game, Minnesota was 1-for-6 on the power play, Denver 1-for-10.
Early in the third, Fisher was strong in stopping Jake Fleming shorthanded, and then denying Gino Guyer and Tallackson on the same rush. Skating four-on-four after yet another pair of penalties, Denver’s J.D. Corbin beat his defender around the corner for a stuff attempt, but Briggs likewise held firm.
The win started Minnesota off on the right foot, unlike last season, when the Gophers lost to Maine to open the schedule en route to a 2-7-1 start. Denver, meanwhile, started 6-1 last year, with the only loss in that stretch coming to … Minnesota.
Denver (0-1-0) plays at Hockey East schools Boston College and Northeastern next Friday and Saturday, while Minnesota (1-0-0) appears in the Nye Frontier Classic in Anchorage, playing Massachusetts Friday night.