MINNEAPOLIS — Night and day. Or twilight and evening, at least.
That was the difference between the Dodge Classic’s Wednesday afternoon opener — a scoreless draw won by Northern Michigan in a shootout — and the nightcap, in which host Minnesota barreled past Merrimack, 6-2, in the first-ever meeting between the Gophers and the Warriors.
A balanced first few minutes gave way to a Minnesota scoring barrage. The Gophers totaled 35 shots and steadily pulled away for their 19th consecutive home win.
Minnesota (14-4-0) played without defensemen Alex Goligoski and Nate Hagemo, both with the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships, but the product on the ice didn’t suffer noticeably. The Gophers held Merrimack (6-11-2) to 22 shots on goal, most of them from the perimeter, and didn’t give up a goal until 52 minutes had elapsed.
Much of the damage was done by the Gophers’ impromptu third line of Ben Gordon, Evan Kaufmann and Barry Tallackson, which totaled six points. Kaufman, in his fifth game as a Gopher, scored the first goal, Tallackson netted the fifth, and Gordon amassed three assists to spark the offense.
“I thought that was our best line tonight,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “Evan’s got great hockey sense … and he’s forcing us to put him in the lineup and keep him in the lineup.”
Despite managing only six shots on goal in the opening stanza, Minnesota ended the period with a two-goal lead.
Merrimack skated effectively with the hosts for the first 10 minutes, but Minnesota broke on top with the first goal of the season from Kaufmann. Fellow freshman Gordon made the play, knocking a puck loose in the Merrimack end and poking it to Kaufmann, who drove up the middle and beat Warrior goaltender Jim Healey (29 saves) to his glove side at 10:22.
“It’s getting to that time of the year when Coach is going ot try to make a solid lineup,” said Kaufman, who has played in four of the last six Gopher games after sitting most of the first half.
The Gophers doubled the lead at 14:04. Garrett Smaagaard notched his fifth goal of the year off another Gordon assist, on just the fifth shot on goal of the game for Minnesota.
“First period, we turned the puck over twice, for two goals,” said Merrimack head coach Chris Serino. “To get into a wide-open game with them, that’s not what we were trying to do.”
Minnesota pulled away in the second period, buzzing the Merrimack net and getting shots from all over the zone.
Early in the second, Smaagaard nearly made it a three-goal edge with a point-blank attempt that Healey stopped. But minutes later, a Matt Byrnes penalty for interference put Minnesota on its second power play. After Ryan Potulny hit the crossbar on a scoop, Mike Vannelli took a diagonal pass from Derek Peltier and skimmed a shot underneath Healey to make it 3-0.
Danny Irmen added to the Gopher lead at 13:59. Kris Chucko and Irmen broke into the Warrior zone two-on-one, and Healey’s save of Chucko’s shot from the left side bounced in front to Irmen, who put away the rebound into the open half of the net.
Less than two minutes later, Kaufmann fired a low-angle shot on net from along the goal line, and Tallackson was there to whip home the rebound at Healey’s feet, making it 5-0 Minnesota. Gordon earned the second assist, his third of the game.
“We were in good position early in the game, and later our transition defense was poor,” said Serino.
Midway through the third, penalties against Minnesota’s Tyler Hirsch and Mike Howe put Merrimack on an extended five-on-three, and the Warriors converted with the first goal of the year by Brent Gough. Last season’s team scoring leader, Gough was playing his first game since sustaining a broken arm on Oct. 22.
“Having him back was nice,” said Serino, adding, “But we get one back, and we lose two.” Merrimack’s Jordan Black and Steve Crusco left the game due to injuries in the second period, and their availability for Thursday’s game was not immediately known.
Minnesota tacked on one more goal on the power play at 15:52. A Potulny shot from the right side banged off bodies in front and eventually rolled under Healey. The goal was Potulny’s nation-best 18th of the season, with an assist to Hirsch, his second helper of the game, extending his Division I-leading total to 21.
Merrimack’s Mike Fournier finished off the scoring with a power-play goal from the edge of the crease, beating Kellen Briggs (20 saves) at 19:30.
The Warriors went 2-for-5 on the power play, Minnesota 2-for-4.
The win puts Minnesota in Thursday’s championship against Northern Michigan, with the start at 8:05 p.m. CT. The Gophers will be after their ninth Dodge Classic title in 13 attempts, and their sixth straight. Merrimack plays Harvard in the consolation at 5:05.