MINNEAPOLIS — Last season, defense was Minnesota State’s undoing. But after the Mavericks’ opening series against North Dakota, during which they held the high-powered Fighting Sioux to just four goals in total, it looked like this year might be different.
Friday night, new-look Minnesota begged to differ. The Gophers (4-2, 2-1 WCHA) scored at will, chasing Mankato goaltender Kyle Nixon from the net with a near-double digit offensive outburst in their 9-2 win at Mariucci Arena. Eight players, including four freshmen, scored for the Gophers as they ran away for the victory in their home opener.
Rookie Mike Howe topped the assault with his first two collegiate goals, and two other Minnesota players notched their first scores as Gophers as well.
And though it might seem odd to refer to goaltending as the key in a rout, that’s just what Gopher head coach Don Lucia did in complimenting the play of netminder Kellen Briggs. Briggs stopped 40 shots as Mankato actually outshot the Gophers despite the lopsided score.
“[Briggs] was our best player tonight,” said Lucia of his netminder, who set a career high in saves.
That wasn’t immediately obvious as Minnesota State (0-4-1, 0-4-1 WCHA) scored the first goal of the game off the stick of David Backes, who put his own power-play rebound past Briggs just 1:17 into the game. But the Gophers scored the next three, then ran off six more after an intervening Maverick tally in the second period.
With Minnesota leading 5-2 after two periods, Danny Irmen provided the backbreaker just 25 seconds into the third. Skating four-on-four, Irmen shoved home a loose puck that landed behind Nixon after Judd Stevens’ initial shot hit the crossbar.
Brent Borgen, Garrett Smaagaard and Barry Tallackson finished off the scoring for the Gophers, after which Nixon gave way to Jon Volp, who stopped Minnesota’s last five shots on goal. The four-goal third period went Minnesota’s way despite 22 Maverick shots, none successful thanks to Briggs.
And on Halloween weekend, the Gophers made the number 13 lucky — for themselves, at least. Minnesota was a picture of offensive consistency in getting 13 shots in each period for a game total of 39. Mankato’s shot total for the evening stood at 42.
Special teams, which have been critical in so many games this season thanks to the NCAA’s ongoing crackdown on holding, were not the key Friday. Each team had seven power plays, but converted only once — both in the first period, the first two goals of the game.
Minnesota’s lone power-play goal tied up the contest at 16:24 of the first, as blue-chip rookie Kris Chucko notched his first score as a collegian by redirecting Derek Peltier’s shot past Nixon.
The Gophers then took charge in the middle frame. Howe scored at 3:56, Peltier at 5:00, Andy Sertich at 7:44 and Howe again at 15:24. Sertich’s goal was shorthanded and unassisted, coming on a breakaway after a turnover in the neutral zone.
Those goals sandwiched a Maverick marker by Lucas Fransen, who bounced his shot off Stevens.
Oddly enough, Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny — the team and national leader in goals with seven — was held without a tally, though he did earn an assist on Howe’s second goal to give him at least one point in the Gophers’ last six contests.
For the Mavericks, the result impugned the defense once again. Minnesota State has now allowed 21 goals in its last three games after a promising start, frustrating head coach Troy Jutting, who referred to his team’s blueline play as “horrible.”
The win was Minnesota’s program-best 12th straight at home. The same two teams battle again Saturday at 7:05 p.m. CST.