ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Gophers head coach Don Lucia handed his team a vivid ultimatum after giving up a two-goal third-period lead Friday night at Mariucci Arena, nearly letting a victory slip into the hands of the St. Cloud State Huskies.
Either the Gophers come out to compete Saturday, or they’d go back to Mariucci Arena at 12:01 a.m. and compete against each other in battle drills.
Take that threat into consideration and top it off with their full-pad scrimmage before Saturday’s game, and it was apparent what Lucia needed from his team: ruggedness.
“I’ve never experienced that, really, before,” said Gopher forward Gino Guyer, who finished with a goal and an assist. “It was warranted, though. Last night we did not compete.”
They did Saturday to earn a 4-1 victory over the Huskies in front of 6,537 at the National Hockey Center for their first sweep since Jan. 14-15. The No. 12 ranked Gophers have now won eight consecutive games (and own an 11-game unbeaten streak) in their I-94 rivalry versus the Huskies; their last loss being 4-3 on Jan. 3, 2003.
Much like Friday night, the Gophers took a two goal lead into the third period, but this time they held on to it. After letting a 2-0 lead flop to a 3-2 Husky advantage in the series opener at Mariucci, Lucia admitted that the eventual 5-4 Gopher win didn’t feel like one.
“It was night and day,” Lucia said, comparing the two games. “Our team played much better tonight. We earned a win tonight and I don’t think we earned a win last night.”
Also much like Friday, the game opening goal came with some controversy to the dismay of the Huskies.
Friday night SCSU complained that freshman Matt Francis was tripped in a turn of events which led to an open lane for Gopher winger Derek Peltier’s goal. This time, Peltier let a shot go from the left boards while Gopher winger Tyler Hirsch and SCSU’s Matt Hartman crashed into Husky goalie Jason Montgomery. With all three tangled in a knot near the crease, Gopher freshman Evan Kaufmann found a rebound between the circles and had no problem capitalizing on the open net.
The Gophers took advantage of an SCSU defensive lapse in order to go up 2-0 at the 6:11 mark of the second period. Gopher freshman Kris Chucko found Guyer unguarded below the hash marks of the left circle to beat a sprawled Montgomery short-side.
The Huskies answered less than a minute later when junior winger Joe Jensen scored a rare Husky power-play goal, breaking a 2-for-41 slump in nine games. Freshman Nate Dey, who was lurking behind the net, found Jensen, whose shot from the right circle squeezed between Gopher goalie Justin Johnson’s pads and the right post.
Jensen would have notched his second if not for a clutch save from Johnson moments later. SCSU freshman Casey Borer fired a pass from the top of the right circle to a streaking Jensen at the left post, but Johnson slid across the crease just in time to make a stick save.
Instead, Gopher junior Tyler Hirsch took advantage of the open ice on a 4-on-4 and wristed a shot over Montgomery’s glove to give the Gophers a 3-1 lead 12:46 into the second period.
“Johnson made some nice saves in the second period to keep it close, so instead of 2-2, it was 2-1 and then [Hirsch] sniped it,” said SCSU head coach Craig Dahl. “We’re down 3-1 going into the third and we’ve come back three straight games, but not tonight. I thought we played pretty well but we couldn’t buy a goal in the second and that was our doom.”
Husky freshman Matt Francis, who has been snake-bitten all season, nearly found his first goal of the season off his own rebound, but his shot rattled off the left post.
Barry Tallackson sealed the victory when he took a pretty backhanded pass from Guyer at the left post and skated across the slot to beat Montgomery glove-side.
Although the Gophers’ high-octane offense usually provides them with all the fuel they need (16-0-1 when they score four or more goals), their physical play led to this win.
“I was kind of mad about last night because I thought we were an emotionally-dead team,” Guyer said. “I tried to come out and set the tempo the best that I could. On our first shift, me [Danny Irmen] and [Chucko] looked at each other and said we’re just going to get the puck deep and get the team and get the team fired up by throwing our bodies around. In the first shift I think we hit three or four guys down low.”
“We were the aggressor,” Lucia said. “I liked our play along the walls and we initiated some contact. We got knocked down a few times but tonight we got in there to get knocked down. Last night we didn’t even get in position to get into battles along the walls. We were a lot more physical tonight.”
The Huskies, who haven’t won a WCHA game at home since Nov. 26, 2004, move down to a tie with Michigan Tech for the last spot in the WCHA standings with a 14-20-2 (8-18-0 WCHA) record. The victory moves the Gophers to 22-12-1 (15-10-1 WCHA), two points behind the Wisconsin Badgers, who hold the third spot in the conference.
Lucia and Guyer both said it was probably their most complete game in at least a month.
“Tonight was the way we have to play every night,” Guyer said. “We need all 20 guys on board. Everyone’s sacrificing their bodies to block shots, going hard to the net, getting the cycle going, all the little things that made us successful at the beginning of the year we did tonight and we must continue to do that for the rest of the year.”
They had better, or it’s back to the rink.