MINNEAPOLIS — It took Minnesota 25 minutes to get going, but once the Gophers found their bearings, they never looked back.
With Minnesota State ahead by a goal on Brad Thompson’s power-play tally 5:54 into the second period, the Gophers struck for six unanswered goals, cruising to a 7-2 win in Game 1 of their WCHA first-round series Friday at Mariucci Arena.
Danny Irmen and Barry Tallackson each scored twice for the Gophers, who hung in early with the help of some of their less well-known names before putting the Mavericks away. Justin Johnson made 25 saves, including some key stops early, in the Minnesota net.
Minnesota’s ability to answer Minnesota State’s early scores was critical to the outcome. Each of the Mavericks’ two goals was countered within a minute by the Gophers.
“Letting them score right away after we scored both our goals — that was a big key. We never got the chance to build any momentum,” said Mavericks head coach Troy Jutting.
“The next shift, if you score after they do, that’s huge,” said Irmen, “especially in your own building.”
Action heated up late in a scoreless first period, with Irmen splitting two defensemen on a power-play rush, but unable to push the puck through Maverick netminder Jon Volp (27 saves). At the other end, Maverick Ryan Carter got in close to shovel the puck through traffic at Johnson, but it dribbled wide.
Confusion in the defensive zone cost the Gophers the first goal of the game. With the puck banging around behind the net, Minnesota State’s Jake Brenk moved it to Ryan McKelvie, standing unmarked in the slot. Johnson stopped McKelvie’s shot, but had no chance on Christian Toll’s putaway at 3:02 of the second period.
But the Gophers immediately tied the score, off the stick of Garrett Smaagaard. From the left faceoff circle, Smaagaard fired, and his shot bounced back to him off a defender’s stick. His second shot beat Volp to the near side at 3:59.
Thompson converted his goal on the Mavericks’ third power play, at 5:54. A shot by Travis Morin rebounded to Thompson crossing the circles, and after luring Johnson out of position, Thompson fired a shot that hit Johnson’s outstretched glove and trickled across the goal line to make it 2-1 Mavericks.
Evan Kaufmann got that goal back for Minnesota on an odd play. An Andy Sertich shot dribbled through Volp and beyond the goal line, where Kaufmann picked it up, moved around and behind the net and faked a centering pass. Volp went to his knees on that side, leaving Kaufmann to walk around the other side and casually stuff the puck into the yawning goalmouth at 6:38.
“I thought we played pretty well for a period and a half,” said Jutting. “They [the Gophers] are good. They’re good, and they got a couple of bounces.”
One of those bounces came late in the second, as Tallackson put the Gophers up for the first time at 14:12. Gopher blueliner Nate Hagemo wound up for a slapshot from the left point into traffic. The puck hit Tallackson and Brenk, ending up in the net for a 3-2 Minnesota lead and turning the momentum permanently in the Gophers’ favor.
“Scoring gives you that jump,” said Gophers bench boss Don Lucia. “We got contributions from all four lines.”
Minnesota made it 4-2 on a goal from Kris Chucko, who notched his eighth of the season off a Gino Guyer pass. Guyer, parked beside the goalmouth, dropped the puck off for Chucko, who whipped his shot inside the post at 19:00.
The second period also saw Johnson’s defining play, a scoring chance for Minnesota State’s Jeff Marler on which Johnson came 50 feet out of the net to beat Marler to a puck in the zone, sending it skittering away without incident.
“If I let it be a breakaway, who knows what’s going to happen?” said Johnson of his venture into no-man’s land.
“[Johnson] is looking very confident,” said Lucia. “He’s giving us a chance to win every night.”
In the third period, the Gophers made the contest academic, first tacking on a power-play goal at 3:39 — a short wrister for Irmen to Volp’s glove side — then a Tallackson putaway off Mike Vannelli’s shot-pass at 15:27. Irmen’s second goal of the game and 22nd of the year rounded out the scoring at 19:48.
“We’re happy,” said Irmen. “I’ll leave it at that. For Friday, we’re happy.”
The teams rematch on Saturday for Game 2, which could spell the end of the 2004-05 campaign for the Mavericks, a fact Lucia knows well.
“The most difficult game you play every year is when you try to eliminate somebody from the playoffs,” he said.
The puck drops at 7:07 p.m.