MINNEAPOLIS — In the critical moments Friday night, Minnesota couldn’t buy a goal. That’s because John DeCaro wasn’t selling.
DeCaro, Alaska-Anchorage’s backup netminder, made every kind of save on his way to a mind-numbing total of 57, and UAA built a three-goal lead before hanging on for a 3-2 win before a disbelieving crowd at Mariucci Arena.
“His teammates have confidence in him, and he came up big for us tonight,” said UAA head coach John Hill, adding, “That’s an understatement.”
The start was DeCaro’s first in almost three months, thanks to a groin pull suffered in practice Tuesday by regular netminder Nathan Lawson. In his stead, DeCaro put up an incredible performance.
“Nothing even comes close,” said DeCaro, assessing his performance against the balance of his collegiate career, which began at Ferris State. “It’s a big building, a lot of fans, a good atmosphere. It was nice to quiet them down.”
Minnesota mustered just one tally until the waning seconds of the game, despite posting a season-high 59 shots on goal to UAA’s 21. The Gophers’ power play also missed on its first five opportunities against a penalty kill that came in with an efficiency under 80 percent.
“We were out-executed everywhere,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “Their penalty-killers were better than our power play.”
“Minnesota pumped a lot of rubber at us tonight, and probably deserved a better fate,” said Hill. “But we’ll take it.”
The trouble began early for the Gophers, though they started piling up the shots right from the opening drop of the puck. But at 8:36, a defensive lapse by Minnesota turned into a two-on-one for UAA. Nick Lowe’s cross-ice pass found Jim Dahl unmarked on the back door, and Dahl’s wrister creased the net inside the left post to make it 1-0 UAA.
The goal was the first of the year for Dahl, a native of nearby Minnetonka, Minn. The senior was a game-time replacement for Chris Tarkir (back spasms).
“I knew it wasn’t our night when the guy who wasn’t supposed to play scores the first goal,” Lucia said.
Despite lengthy possessions in the Seawolf zone, when the Gophers did put together scoring chances, DeCaro was the picture of composure in making the stops. The first period ended with UAA leading 1-0 despite a 20-7 deficit in shots on goal — though a number of those came from long range, a credit to the Seawolves’ physical defense.
“The puck mostly stayed to the outside, which is what we wanted to do,” said Hill.
Early in the second, after Minnesota hit the post on another exchange in front of the Seawolf net, UAA stunned the Gophers with its second goal. Lee Green’s slapshot from the left point hit traffic, and Martin Stuchlik put it away for his fifth goal of the season at 1:21.
DeCaro was called upon to make another spectacular stop at the eight-minute mark, putting a pad out to deny Gino Guyer after the junior weaved in front for a leaning stuff attempt.
Minutes later, a roughing call against the Gophers’ Danny Irmen gave the Seawolves a four-on-three power play, and Brandon Segal converted on a blast from the right circle that beat Kellen Briggs cleanly to make it 3-0 at 10:14.
The Gophers finally solved DeCaro on their 35th shot. Off a Guyer centering pass, Mike Vannelli released a shot from the left side that bounced through a screened DeCaro’s five-hole. Minnesota then had three prime scoring chances to finish the second, but could not convert as DeCaro reverted to his brick-wall ways.
Barry Tallackson couldn’t control the puck on a breakaway and fired it off DeCaro’s glove with three minutes left in the period. DeCaro then stopped Jake Fleming from 20 feet, cradling a chest-high shot, and fought off Kris Chucko’s attempt from the edge of the crease.
Briggs’ night ended after the second period, as Justin Johnson replaced him. In 40 minutes, Briggs made 15 saves on 18 shots. Johnson stopped three UAA shots in the third.
Minnesota started with another flurry in the third, but even with DeCaro stickless after a collision in front, couldn’t manage a goal. As the minutes ticked down, Minnesota pressed with desperation, but DeCaro again came up big, this time with a pad save on Andy Sertich’s point-blank backhander.
Finally, with Johnson out of the Gopher net and Green in the penalty box for cross-checking, Minnesota netted its second goal, a Chris Harrington shot that banged off Guyer’s skate before going in with eight seconds left.
That was one goal too few to beat Alaska-Anchorage, which held on for the 3-2 win. For Minnesota, the loss was another in a string of recent letdowns.
“We’re all disappointed,” Lucia said. “We’re still not there.”
Alaska-Anchorage, meanwhile, wasn’t about to question its good fortune in a season which has seen the puck take all the wrong bounces for the Seawolves.
“I’m surprised we could hang on to win tonight, the way things have gone for us this season,” said Hill. “But sometimes you get a little puck luck, and the hockey gods smile down on you.”
The two teams rematch Saturday night at Mariucci.