MINNEAPOLIS — Friday afternoon, Minnesota unveiled its official campaign on behalf of Ryan Potulny’s Hobey Baker candidacy. Just a few hours later, the junior center gave his bid another boost on the ice.
Potulny netted a natural hat trick — including the game winner — in the second period to extend his nation-leading goal total to 34, and the host Gophers held off determined Alaska-Anchorage for a 7-4 win in Game 1 of their WCHA first-round playoff series.
Potulny, who added an assist for a four-point night, was supported on offense by Ben Gordon, who tallied two goals and an assist of his own.
“There were a couple of guys who made the difference in the game tonight, and fortunately they played for us,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.
The crowd at Mariucci Arena serenaded Potulny with chants of “Hobey Baker” after each goal. The target of their adulation, though, was focused on matters at hand.
“It’s nice to hear them, but I don’t worry about that stuff,” said Potulny, whose hat trick was his second in four games.
Minnesota (26-6-5) racked up 52 shots on goal in a steady effort on offense — though the Gophers let Alaska-Anchorage (6-26-3), which totaled 28 shots, score often enough to keep it close most of the way.
“We didn’t give up that many shots,” said Lucia, “but it was a tough night for [goaltender] Kellen [Briggs]. I’m sure he’s a little frustrated right now.”
“You just can’t give up seven goals in the playoffs,” said UAA head coach Dave Shyiak.
Alaska-Anchorage aggressively buzzed the Gopher net early in the first period, but Minnesota stunned the Seawolves with two rapid-fire goals to take command.
Gordon notched the first at 6:43. With the puck banging around in the slot, Mike Vannelli gave it to Blake Wheeler, who hit Gordon between the circles. Gordon’s shot slipped under UAA netminder John DeCaro’s left leg to make it 1-0.
Phil Kessel doubled the lead at 7:17. Off a cross-ice pass from Gordon, the freshman one-timed a blast against the grain that went five-hole for his 15th goal of the season.
After a high-stick on Danny Irmen put UAA on the power play, and the Seawolves converted at 11:09. Freshman Jay Beagle’s shot from the point bounced off Briggs’ glove and in to make it 2-1.
Beagle’s goal was the first allowed by Minnesota in 219:33 of ice time, the school’s longest shutout streak since 1929.
Early in the second period, the teams traded goals off nifty shots. Potulny started his offensive burst at 4:58, circling away from the boards and firing a blast to the top right corner that DeCaro didn’t pick up until it was too late.
That gave the hosts a two-goal advantage again, but UAA got it back less than a minute later when Brent McMann duplicated Potulny’s goal, beating Briggs high to his glove side with a one-timer off an Eric Walsky setup.
Potulny restored the two-goal lead at 14:57, firing one home from the low slot off the rebound of Irmen’s shot. The junior center then completed a natural hat trick at with a tip of R.J. Anderson’s slapshot from the right point — a knee-high deflection that floated over a frustrated DeCaro’s shoulder and into the net.
“Great players have a way of tracking the puck,” said Lucia. “That’s something you can’t teach, and that’s why it’s hard to find natural goal-scorers.”
Potulny’s third goal of the evening gave Minnesota a 5-2 lead at 18:31, but with the game threatening to get out of hand, UAA captain Ales Parez — who had missed the previous six games with a shoulder injury — started another Seawolf rally, scoring his sixth goal of the season with just 46 seconds left in the frame.
The Seawolves then made it 5-4 at 5:14 of the third. Senior defenseman Daron Underwood did the honors, netting his first goal of the season — and the second of his career — with a shot from the left circle.
But Minnesota pulled away again as Gordon notched his second goal of the contest and 11th of the year at 10:35, potting the rebound of P.J. Atherton’s slapshot from a hard angle along the goal line.
Ryan Stoa capped the scoring with an empty-netter for Minnesota, which expected a battle despite UAA’s last-place league finish and lengthy winless streak, which reached 14 games with the loss.
“They’re always a scrappy team in the playoffs,” said Gordon, “and we knew that.”
As well as extending the Gophers’ overall unbeaten streak to 13 games, the win kept two Minnesota postseason streaks alive. The Gophers are now 7-0-0 against UAA in the WCHA playoffs, and have also won all 23 first-round games they have played at the new Mariucci Arena since its opening for the 1993-94 season.
At an individual level, Potulny ran his point-scoring streak to seven games, during which time the native of Grand Forks, N.D., has scored 12 goals. Irmen’s two assists gave him a six-game streak as well.
UAA, meanwhile, must now win two straight games — something it hasn’t done all year — to extend its season past this weekend. Game 2 of the best-of-3 series is set for 7 p.m. CT Saturday.