HOUGHTON, Mich. — The No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers (14-1-3 overall, 8-0-3 WCHA) came into the MacInnes Student Ice Arena and pounced on the Michigan Tech Huskies (6-7-2 overall, 3-6-0 WCHA) in impressive fashion, netting three first-period goals en route to a 4-1 win in front of 2,676 Husky faithful.
“I think it was really important for us to get off to the fast start,” said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. “I liked the way played from the goalie on out.”
The two teams started off on even footing, with the Gophers out-chancing the Huskies, but without the Huskies backing down from the challenge. Huskies goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak made six solid stops in the early going. The Huskies had three men defending nearly every Gopher rush to frustrate the Gophers early.
The Huskies also had a couple of chances of their own, as freshman forward Ryan Bunger, who’d broken into the lineup against St. Cloud State in a big way, had a couple of golden opportunities from near the crease, but Gopher goaltender Kellen Briggs made both stops.
Senior forward Tyler Hirsch got the Gophers on the board on a four-on-three power play with a rebound goal at 10:51. Captain Mike Vannelli, who’d been set up by freshman phenom Kyle Okposo, ripped a shot from the high slot that rebounded to Hirsch. The goal was Hirsch’s fourth of the year.
“Mike made a nice shot on net and the puck just bounced right to me,” said Hirsch. “I looked to pass, but then just threw it at the net.”
Okposo extended the lead to two with a beautiful breakaway goal just four minutes later, for his 13th of the year. Hirsch moved the puck to freshman defenseman Erik Johnson, who hit Okposo in stride, and Okposo made a great move to beat Teslak on the backhand.
Trying to spark some life in the Huskies, co-captain Mike Batovanja, who had missed the previous two weeks with injury, laid a huge check into junior forward Evan Kaufmann, but the slight boost the Huskies had was short-lived.
“That’s the way I want to start every game (with the big hit),” said Batovanja. “I tried to set a spark for the team, but unfortunately it didn’t work tonight.”
The Gophers extended their lead to three when freshman forward Tony Lucia netted his third of the season at the 16:32 mark. Blake Wheeler and Vannelli both assisted on the goal.
“Getting those three goals in the first period really helped,” said Okposo. “We were fortunate to shut them down.”
Huskies head coach Jamie Russell changed goaltenders to start the second period to sophomore Rob Nolan, but the results started out the same way they ended in the first — with the Gophers netting a quick goal just 49 seconds in.
Okposo tallied his second of the game off a perfect feed from Hirsch, who one-timed a pass from junior defenseman Alex Goligoski to Okposo to set up the goal.
“Michael-Lee Teslak certainly had an off night,” said Russell. “If you’re going to knock off the number-one team in the country, you need strong goaltending.”
Batovanja landed another huge hit in the middle of the rink trying to spark the Huskies. This time he succeeded, as the Huskies all seemed to get more than a momentary boost from his strong play.
“Everyone in the building can see the heart and intensity Mike brings to the rink every night,” said Russell.
Capitalizing on the excitement, junior defenseman Jake Wilkens finally got the Huskies on the board with his second goal of the season at the 13:00 mark of the period. Junior forward Jimmy Kerr came flying out of the penalty box, causing Briggs, who’d come way out of his net to play the puck along the side boards, to badly misplay the puck. Kerr fed Wilkens, who buried a long shot into a gaping net.
The Huskies wouldn’t go away quietly in the third period. Nolan appeared to have recovered from the heartbreaking loss last Saturday to St. Cloud, as he shut down the Gophers.
“When you have the support of the 22 guys in front of you, it’s easier to play well,” said Nolan.
The Gophers had one last golden opportunity to add to the three-goal lead with a pair of Huskies in the box for the last minute and a half, but Nolan continued to hang tough, shutting down the Gophers almost single-handedly.
The Gophers outshot the Huskies 27 to 17 for the game, marking just the fourth time this season the Huskies were outshot.
“We wanted to stress getting shots, and keeping them from getting many,” said Okposo. “The goal was to get 35 a night while holding them to 20 or less.”
The Gophers finished one-for-six on the power play while holding the Huskies to zero-for-six with the man advantage.
“We feel fortunate we got to four goals tonight,” said Lucia.
The teams face off again Saturday night at 7:07 p.m.