MINNEAPOLIS — After a rough stretch in the second half, Minnesota looks to be firing on all cylinders at the right time.
The Gophers got production up and down the roster, completing a first-round WCHA sweep of Minnesota State by outlasting the Mavericks for a 5-3 win Saturday at Mariucci Arena. Five different Gophers scored to send Minnesota to the Final Five for a chance at its third straight WCHA tournament championship.
“It makes a big difference when you get contributions from all your lines,” said head coach Don Lucia, whose Gophers are now 22-0-0 in first-round playoff games at the new Mariucci Arena.
Despite a strong first period that included the first nine shots on goal, Minnesota (26-12-1) didn’t break through on the scoreboard until 14:54. Jerrid Reinholz did the honors on a shot from the edge of the crease off a Jake Fleming pass.
After dominating the first period but being up only one goal, Lucia expected Minnesota State (13-18-6) to mount a charge, and the Mavericks did.
Just 57 seconds into the middle frame, Minnesota State evened the contest when a Brad Thompson faceoff win turned into a snapshot by Adam Gerlach that beat Gopher netminder Justin Johnson (25 saves) to the far side.
“‘Jeez, we’re only ahead by one?’” said Lucia of his thoughts on the Gophers’ fortunes after 20 minutes. “All it takes is one bounce, and then they get the faceoff goal, and it’s game on.”
Game on it was. Gerlach’s tally kicked off a frantic period in which the penalty boxes were stuffed full — and so were the nets. A total of six goals were scored in the second, including four on power plays, and 11 penalties dotted the scoresheet as well.
Penalties against Mike Vannelli, Judd Stevens and P.J. Atherton gave the Mavericks nearly five consecutive minutes of power play. But the Gophers killed the penalties, then turned around with a five-on-three of their own after Minnesota State’s Rob Rankin was called for tripping at 7:25.
On that power play, Danny Irmen’s persistence paid off with his 23rd goal of the year. Receiving a pass from Tyler Hirsch, Irmen couldn’t thread a pass across the goalmouth, but took two whacks at the loose puck to make it 2-1 Gophers at 8:01.
An Alex Goligoski trip put the Mavericks on the power play once again, and Thompson converted at 10:13. Skating between the circles, Jake Brenk left the puck for Thompson, who rang a slapshot off the left post for his 13th goal of the season.
The parade to the box continued with calls against Rankin, then Hirsch and Maverick Jeff Marler, giving Minnesota another power play. Atherton took a cross-ice pass from Stevens and hammered a slapshot through traffic inside the far post at 12:56 to give Minnesota a 3-2 lead.
That lead, like its predecessors, was short-lived. With the Maverick power play back on after Atherton’s goal, Thompson skimmed a shot-pass toward the crease that found Brenk’s stick, and the senior center stuffed it home at 14:08. Travis Morin picked up the second assist, his seventh straight game with a point.
But Minnesota countered the counter to take the advantage once more. Just 33 seconds later, off a pass from Irmen, a full-striding Mike Howe blasted a slapshot from the left faceoff circle past Mavericks goaltender Chris Clark (31 saves) to give the Gophers a stomach-churning 4-3 lead.
“That was a big part of the weekend,” said Lucia, “to be able to score and take away any momentum they might have had.”
Clark prevented a fifth Minnesota tally with a minute to go in the second. Chris Harrington’s initial shot rebounded into open space for Barry Tallackson, but Clark, cat-quick, threw a pad across the crease to save a sure goal.
A comparatively tame third period ensued. After 14 minutes, Clark blocked down a point-blank shot from Kris Chucko to keep the Mavericks in it, but seconds later Tallackson took a diagonal pass from Harrington and tucked away a backhander from the edge of the crease to make it 5-3 with five minutes left.
With Minnesota State playing for its season, Clark left the Maverick net with over three minutes to go. A Chucko hook and a Vannelli crosscheck turned it into a six-on-three with 38 seconds left, but after a frantic sequence, a clear by Gino Guyer sealed the deal for the Gophers.
The win was Minnesota’s sixth this season against the Mavericks after sweeping the four-game regular-season series, ending Minnesota State’s 2004-05 campaign and the college careers of its senior class.
“You come in as a freshman and you think you’ve got forever in college hockey, and next thing you’re playing your last game,” said Maverick head coach Troy Jutting of his seniors.
Minnesota will face Colorado College Friday in the WCHA semifinals.