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College Hockey:
Gophers Power Up, Cruise Past Warriors

Freshmen Barriball, Okposo Carry Minnesota Offense

— One day after a seven-goal outburst, Minnesota added another element to its offense Saturday. The Golden Gophers got their dormant power play going with three man-advantage goals Saturday night at Mariucci Arena, cruising to a 5-1 win to sweep their weekend series with Wayne State.

“We had to work for the goals tonight, and you expect that in the second game of a series,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, whose Gophers put 50 shots on net but didn’t pull away until getting a flurry of tallies late in the second period.

Freshmen Jay Barriball and Kyle Okposo each scored twice for Minnesota, with Okposo netting the Gophers’ first man-advantage goal of the season to make it 3-1 late in the second. Minnesota had gone 17 straight power plays without converting, including an 0-for-7 performance Friday.

“We really stressed on that [the power play] in the pre-game today,” said Okposo, whose goals were his first as a Gopher.

“Penalties cost us that period,” said Wayne State head coach Bill Wilkinson of the middle frame, during which the Gophers scored all five of their goals. “Every time we tried to do something, we ended up taking a penalty.”

The Gophers came out gunning, racking up 19 shots on goal in the first period, but couldn’t put the puck past Wayne State freshman Brett Bothwell (45 saves) early on. Jason Bloomingburg had a chance to put the Warriors up early, but missed a shot at an open net after catching Gopher netminder Jeff Frazee out of position.

“Even in the first period, we had a lot of good scoring chances, but their goalie played well,” said Lucia.

But just 30 seconds into the middle period, Gopher captain Mike Vannelli helped break the deadlock, taking a shot from the right point that Barriball tipped in. That gave the Gophers the lead, and Barriball a goal in each of Minnesota’s three games.

“The puck’s just finding my stick and I’m just putting it in the net,” said Barriball. “It’s too good to be true.”

Barriball’s linemate, sophomore center Blake Wheeler, then made it 2-0 Minnesota, firing a shot off Bothwell that bounced into the net at 4:17. The goal was Wheeler’s third of the series and the year.

Minutes later, Minnesota could not convert a five-on-three, while at the other end Bloomingburg again nearly put the Warriors on the board with a partial breakaway. The senior winger and the puck both ended up in the net along with Frazee, but after video review, referee Brian Thul ruled no goal.

Wayne State scored anyway, after R.J. Anderson’s hook of Bloomingburg was compounded by an interference call against Vannelli. Wayne State capitalized when Bloomingburg put back a rebound of Jeff Caister’s shot at 10:18.

Late in the second period, WSU’s Tylor Michel went off for interference, and the Gophers suddenly came alive on the power play. Okposo made it a 3-1 game with a goal off an assist from Tyler Hirsch.

“I might have been pressing a little bit,” said Okposo. “It was good to go out there and finally get one.”

With the faucet open, the Gophers went from futile to unstoppable on the power play, scoring twice more on yet another five-on-three.

With Wayne State’s Matt Boldt and Jeff Caister going off 26 seconds apart, Barriball made the Warriors pay, whipping home a shot from just outside the crease to give Minnesota a 4-1 lead.

“Barriball, he’s going to quickly become a fan favorite with the way he plays,” said Lucia of the 5-foot-9, 156-pound winger, who was promoted to the first line with Wheeler and Ben Gordon after playing on the fourth line in the season opener. “He’s not big, but he’s fearless.”

“Big defensemen lose me sometimes,” quipped Barriball, “so I just slip in the back door.”

On the remaining five-on-four, Okposo staked the Gophers to a 5-1 lead by potting a rebound of Ryan Stoa’s shot.

Frazee was called upon to keep the score that way with a minute left in the period, making a nifty glove save of Nate Higgins’ point-blank wrister to prevent the Warriors from gaining any semblance of momentum heading into the locker rooms. The sophomore netminder, who battled through an up-and-down rookie year, finished with 22 saves in a solid performance.

The third period was comparatively uneventful, with only a couple of on-ice scuffles as the clock wound down on Minnesota’s 5-1 win. But despite a pair of decisive victories, Lucia wasn’t satisfied with the on-ice product just yet.

“We’re not there yet,” said Lucia. “We’re growing and learning about ourselves as a team.”

Next weekend, the Gophers (2-1-0) travel to Ohio State for their first road series of the season, while Wayne State (0-2-0) opens CHA play with a series at Alabama-Huntsville.

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