MINNEAPOLIS — Whatever expectations the Minnesota Golden Gophers might have had after Friday’s showdown with Denver, it’s doubtful that they anticipated what they were able to do Saturday in the series finale.
One night after going down to the wire in a one-goal win, Minnesota stunned Denver with goals on each of its first two shots on net. The Gophers scored a total of three times in the opening 10 minutes and cruised to a 5-1 victory for the weekend sweep at Mariucci Arena.
Danny Irmen had two goals, including the pacesetting first of the game, and Ryan Potulny and Chris Harrington both tallied their 100th career points on assists.
“We got a couple of lucky bounces early on, and that’s part of the game,” said Irmen, who stepped up in just his second game back from injury for Minnesota (21-6-5, 16-5-3 WCHA).
The Pioneers (18-12-2, 15-7-2 WCHA), meanwhile, simply couldn’t get out of the hole the Gophers dug for them.
“It’s not good when you’re down three goals in the first 10 minutes of the game,” said DU captain Gabe Gauthier, “but that’s how Minnesota plays. … We put out a good effort — it just wasn’t as good as theirs.”
“I thought that was the key to the game,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia of the Gophers’ blazing start. “After that, we had the 3-0 lead and I thought we played pretty smart.”
Saturday’s win, coupled with Wisconsin’s tie against Michigan Tech, put the first-place Gophers two points ahead of Wisconsin and three up on third-place Denver in the conference. But any talk of winning the MacNaughton Cup, symbol of the WCHA regular-season championship, was quickly short-circuited.
“What Cup?” Irmen quipped. “You know, we haven’t talked about that at all. … We’re just trying to set ourselves up for the end of the year, and if it happens, that’s great.”
“We’re just concentrating on the next game,” said Lucia. “Obviously, we’re in the NCAA tournament … What you’re playing for is a No. 1 seed.”
That goal is well within Minnesota’s reach. With the win, the Gophers took over the top spot in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the selection process for the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, the window for Denver — which started the evening just one point out of first — to reclaim the lead in the league standings closed before the crowd even had a chance to settle in.
Just 1:08 into the game, Harrington let go a slapshot from the point that Irmen got a piece of, deflecting it past Denver netminder Peter Mannino (36 saves) to make it 1-0 Minnesota.
The Gophers doubled their lead seconds later. On a two-on-one, Phil Kessel made a smart cross-ice pass to Ben Gordon, who snapped off a shot from 15 feet that beat an out-of-position Mannino at 1:37.
Irmen then tallied his second goal of the game at 8:34 to extend the Gopher advantage to three. Kessel made the play, going end-to-end up the right side and unleashing a blast that Mannino could not control. The rebound found Irmen between the circles, and the junior beat Mannino to his blocker side for his 14th goal of the season.
Denver had a chance to narrow the lead at the 11-minute mark on a two-on-one of its own, but Paul Stastny’s redirection of Tom May’s cross-crease pass hit Kellen Briggs (22 saves) in the chest. Briggs also kept Denver off the board early in the second period, snatching a Ryan Dingle wrister out of the air off a two-on-one break.
Mannino did his part as well late in the period, denying Potulny with a lightning pad save after a rebound at the 16-minute mark.
The Pioneers finally got on the board after an abbreviated power play in the final minute of the second period. Just after a Gopher penalty had expired, Dingle took a shot that banged off the right post and caromed out to Gauthier. He beat a diving Briggs for his 13th goal of the season to make it 3-1 at 19:06.
But Minnesota answered eight seconds later, killing any chance of a DU comeback. Off a faceoff, Potulny and Ryan Stoa got in behind the DU defenders for a two-on-none, and Potulny’s last-second pass to Stoa left Mannino no chance on the tip-in to make it 4-1.
“That was a tough one,” said Pioneer defenseman Matt Carle of the Gophers’ fourth goal. “We tried to run a play off the faceoff and it kind of backfired on us.”
With the outcome academic, Minnesota dominated the third period, outshooting Denver 17-3 in the final frame. Alex Goligoski closed out the scoring midway through the third with his ninth goal of the season, giving him three points on the night. Kessel picked up his third assist of the game on the play.
With the loss, Denver also missed an opportunity to gain ground in the PairWise, where the Pioneers are on the NCAA tournament fringe.
“We’re just taking it game-by-game right now,” said Gauthier. “We needed some points this weekend, and we didn’t [get them].”
DU will have another chance at those points next weekend when it hosts North Dakota, while Minnesota will make the long trip to visit Alaska-Anchorage.