MINNEAPOLIS — If Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler were looking to rinse out the disappointing taste of the World Junior Championships, they found a pretty good way to do it Friday night.
Newly returned from a fourth-place finish with the U.S. team in Vancouver, the freshman duo combined for Minnesota’s first goal, and the Gophers never looked back as Minnesota claimed a commanding 5-2 win over Niagara at Mariucci Arena.
“They had great legs, which really surprised me,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia of Kessel and Wheeler, who got back into town midday Friday after playing in the WJC’s bronze-medal game Thursday afternoon. “I phoned them last night and asked if they wanted to play.”
They did. Kessel and Wheeler were matched with Justin Bostrom on the Gophers’ fourth line, which Lucia said was an effort at maintaining continuity.
“We didn’t want to disrupt the other lines, so we said, ‘We’ll just put those three together,” said Lucia.
For Niagara, Jeff Van Nynatten made 48 saves, several of the spectacular variety, especially early on before the Gophers took full control of the matchup.
“Jeff, he’s used to it,” said Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder. “He probably prefers to be overworked.”
Despite Van Nynatten, though, the Purple Eagles could not find an answer for the Gophers at either end of the ice.
“Their defensemen, I thought they were the difference in the game,” said Burkholder, citing Minnesota’s transition scoring. “That’s the best team we’ve seen — not even close.
“I’m just disappointed that we had so many average efforts,” he added.
The Gophers dominated territorially from the start, opening the scoring at 3:22. Wheeler tallied his fifth goal of the season on a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle, assisted by Kessel.
“Phil made a great play,” said Wheeler. “It’s really fun to play with him — we were roommates out there [at the World Juniors].
“We were just excited to get back; we didn’t know we were going to play together.”
Defenseman Chris Harrington picked up the second assist. The helper was Harrington’s first of three on the evening, tying him with Alex Goligoski for the team lead with 16 on the season.
Van Nynatten kept Minnesota off the scoreboard midway through the first, denying Danny Irmen’s stuff attempt from his back and kicking aside a redirection attempt by Ryan Potulny seconds later.
But the hosts extended to a 2-0 lead at 14:23, shorthanded. With Gopher R.J. Anderson in the box for hooking, Harrington picked off an errant pass at the blue line and hit freshman Ryan Stoa on the tape with a cross-ice pass. Stoa easily deposited the puck into the half-open net for his third goal of the season.
Minnesota then made it a 3-0 game at 18:18 of the first. Stoa, drifting down to the left-wing side of the crease, drew Van Nynatten out of net before feeding the puck around the goalie to blueliner Mike Vannelli. Vannelli, alone at the edge of the crease with Van Nynatten 10 feet away, tapped the puck home into the empty net.
Shots on goal after 20 minutes favored Minnesota, 18-8.
Niagara got one back early in the second with Ted Cook’s 11th goal of the season. Cook got around a defender on the right side, skating across the crease and beating Kellen Briggs with a backhander at 2:25 to narrow the lead to 3-1.
But the Gophers answered a minute later, all but icing the game. Off a pass from Harrington, Bostrom paused a moment at the bottom of the left faceoff circle and lifted the puck over Van Nynatten’s glove at 4:02.
Minnesota’s fifth and final goal came in a strange fashion. Van Nynatten made a grab at a head-high floater but couldn’t quite glove it, allowing the puck to bounce off a crashing Goligoski and flip across the goal line a split-second before a Niagara defender could bat it back out.
The Purple Eagles capped off the scoring early in the third period on the power play. The goal, like Minnesota’s last one, was of the fluky variety, going in off the skate of Vannelli after Pat Oliveto and Kris Chucko collided in front of the net. The goal was credited to Oliveto, who got his stick on the puck an instant before Chucko could clear it. It was his second of the season.
A couple of Minnesota penalties added a touch of drama in the final minutes. Wheeler took a five-minute major and a mandatory game misconduct for hitting from behind at 16:57, and Irmen followed him off for hooking 13 seconds later.
That gave Niagara two full minutes of five-on-three, and then a five-on-four to finish the game. But the Purple Eagles were unable to convert, leaving the final score 5-2.
For the game, Minnesota outshot Niagara 53-24 as Briggs made 22 saves for the hosts. The Gophers were 0-for-3 on the power play, while the Purple Eagles went 1-for-7.
The same two teams face off again Saturday night at 7 p.m. Central time at Mariucci to finish the weekend series.