MINNEAPOLIS — If ever there was a game ripe for Minnesota State to win against in-state rival Minnesota, it was Sunday’s.
Yes, the Gophers were the top-ranked team in the nation, unbeaten in 21 straight games, and had not lost in 17 straight games against the Mavericks. But the Gophers were exhausted.
The Gophers called up reinforcements, returning five players from a bronze-medal performance at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden — a call-up that included a 20-hour plane flight and a double-digit time-zone change.
Normally, players might rest after flying halfway around the world, but coach Don Lucia had no choice but to play all of his charges except netminder Jeff Frazee. The Gophers had skated only eight forwards at the end of Friday’s win over Mankato, versus the standard 12.
The three returning forwards — Kyle Okposo, Ryan Stoa and Mike Carman — skated together as the second line. Even with the three forwards returning, defenseman Brian Schack had to play as a forward.
The Gophers looked tired — losing battles to loose pucks, missing passes and taking numerous icing calls, the Minnesota forwards were off their game.
“They all looked tired,” said Lucia.
The Mavericks, however, looked snakebit thanks to Minnesota netminder Kellen Briggs.
“Good thing our best player on the ice was our goaltender,” said Lucia.
The additional skaters did little to help level the ice in the first period as the Mavericks dictated play, outshooting Minnesota 13-8, but failing to score a goal as the period ended 0-0.
“They hit, skated and competed. They did everything but win the game,” said Lucia of the Mavericks’ effort. “I’m just glad they didn’t play that way Friday night.”
“We played as well as we could have played,” added Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting. “We just didn’t make the plays we needed to when we had the opportunities.”
Minnesota defenseman Alex Goligoski scored the only goal of the game halfway through the second period. Goligoski threw the puck towards the net, and it found its way through the crowd off a defenseman to the back of the net past goalie Mike Zacharias.
Briggs was the difference in the game, making numerous quality saves including robbing Joel Hanson on a power play one-timer from the top of the goal crease in the second and stopping three odd-man rushes in the first.
The Mavericks controlled the tempo throughout most of the game, holding a 28-18 lead in shots until the final four minutes.
“We were not ready to play at the beginning of the game,” said Briggs.
The highlight in the first by Briggs was a replay of a breakaway from Friday night, as Jon Kalinski again found himself one-on-one against the netminder on a shorthanded rush. As he had done Friday night, Briggs won the battle.
“Luckily we do those every Thursday in practice,” quipped Briggs.
Next weekend, Minnesota heads to Wisconsin for two, while Minnesota State has a home-and-home with St. Cloud State.