MINNEAPOLIS — With two of the hottest teams in the nation facing off Friday night, something had to give in the battle for first place in the WCHA.
That something turned out to be Denver’s seven-game winning streak, as well as the seventh-ranked Pioneers’ grip on the top spot in the conference standings.
Short two defensemen and facing a five-minute Denver power play late in a tie game, No. 1 Minnesota killed the major penalty, then got Ryan Potulny’s second goal of the evening to claim a 3-2 win at Mariucci Arena and move into first in the league.
Potulny’s winner, his 24th of the season, tied him for the national lead and provided the final fireworks in a contest that started slowly, almost deliberately, as both teams appeared content to feel each other out.
“It was a playoff-type game,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “I thought early on, it was very patient.”
With the score tied at 2 early in the third period, Denver (18-11-2, 15-6-2 WCHA) got a golden opportunity to take its first lead when Minnesota blueliner Alex Goligoski was whistled for a major for hitting from behind at 5:29.
The accompanying game misconduct sent Goligoski to the locker room early, where he joined fellow blueliner P.J. Atherton, who had been whistled for the same infraction in the first period.
But Minnesota (20-6-5, 15-5-3 WCHA) kept the Pioneers away from the net for the full five minutes, clogging passing lanes, blocking shots and clearing the puck, until the Gophers were rewarded with a chance of their own.
A hold by Denver’s Adrian Veideman gave Minnesota its fifth power play of the game, and Potulny put the Gophers on top for good, potting the rebound of his own shot from the right side of the crease at 12:24 to make it 3-2.
Denver pulled netminder Glenn Fisher (30 saves) with just over a minute to go, but never seriously threatened the Gopher net.
“It’s a game of momentum, and obviously our power play didn’t capitalize on that,” said DU captain Gabe Gauthier of the Gophers’ twin kills.
Minnesota’s kill of the Goligoski penalty whipped the sometimes-subdued Mariucci crowd into a frenzy. That, said the players, was also a factor.
“The crowd was really into it, especially in the third period,” said Minnesota netminder Kellen Briggs, who stopped 22 shots.
“Any time we can have the crowd like that … the guys feed off of that,” agreed Gopher captain Gino Guyer.
With only four defensemen left after Goligoski’s ejection, Minnesota moved forward Andy Sertich back to fill the gap. Sertich, who had played defense earlier in the season when the Gophers were short on bodies, again earned kudos for his role Friday.
“Andy Sertich stepped in and played defense, and he’s so versatile,” said an appreciative Guyer.
“That [moving Sertich back] was a real key for us after we lost Alex,” concurred Lucia.
Early on, an uneventful first few minutes gave way to a 1-0 Gopher lead at 10:37 of the first period. R.J. Anderson lined up a slapshot from the right point that Fisher appeared to have a bead on, but Ben Gordon skated across the high slot and got the blade of his stick on the puck, deflecting it under Fisher.
Atherton picked up the major and game misconduct for hitting from behind at 14:46, but Guyer leveled the ice for two of the five minutes by drawing a hold on Pioneer Chris Butler. Minnesota then defended successfully for the remainder of the power play.
The Gophers couldn’t convert a three-on-one early in the second period, despite Gordon getting a couple of whacks from in close. Instead, the Pioneers knotted it up on the power play after a Kris Chucko boarding call.
Ryan Dingle did the honors, tipping in a nifty short-range feed from Paul Stastny at the edge of the crease for his 20th goal of the year at 6:52 of the second.
But Minnesota retook the lead just 26 seconds later. Potulny let fly a shot from near the blue line that somehow eluded the glove of Fisher to make it 2-1 Minnesota.
Seconds after Denver killed Minnesota’s third power play, the action continued to heat up as the Pioneers knotted the score again on a wild play at 12:57.
Patrick Mullen took a shot from the left side that went wide of the net, but hit a stanchion in the Zamboni door and bounced straight out through the slot. Mullen himself dove across to bang the puck into the half-empty net behind Briggs, who didn’t see the puck’s odd bounce until it was too late.
“I heard it hit [metal], and thought, ‘Ah, that’s not good,’” said Briggs.
With the score tied at 2 after two periods, Potulny’s winner was the only goal of the third period, setting up what should be a doozy of a rematch Saturday at 7 p.m. CT. Minnesota now leads the WCHA standings by one point over Denver and Wisconsin, which beat Michigan Tech Friday night.
Despite the loss, the Pioneers weren’t about to cry over spilled milk.
“It was a fun game to play in, and tomorrow’s going to be a fun one too,” said Gauthier.