MINNEAPOLIS — In a game whose meaning was best understood in terms of momentum and morale, Michigan Tech built a four-goal lead and withstood a Minnesota rally to take a 5-4 win in the final game of the regular season for both teams.
MTU’s victory split the weekend series, one night after Minnesota clinched the MacNaughton Cup in the opener. Friday’s results around the WCHA gave the Gophers the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and assured the Huskies of going on the road for their first-round playoff series.
Regardless, Tech had the look of a team that badly wanted the win, and the Huskies got it thanks to a hat trick by Justin St. Louis, a solid performance from netminder Michael-Lee Teslak despite giving up four goals, and a clearer sense of purpose than Minnesota’s.
“We were a team that had to come out and play with a sense of urgency,” said Tech head coach Jamie Russell. “Tonight, we moved our feet much better and supported the puck.
“We had a letdown last night [in a 3-1 loss], and we wanted to get back to playing a good, solid hockey game, and I think we did that,” added Russell.
Minnesota head coach Don Lucia chose some of the same words to describe the Huskies’ play.
“We talked today about how Tech was going to come out with a sense of urgency,” said Lucia. “And they did that.”
Of his own squad, Lucia found little positive to say.
“We were outplayed,” said Lucia. “We didn’t deserve to win tonight — we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win tonight.”
St. Louis scored the game’s first two goals to set the tone. The first came off a rebound six minutes in, just after the expiration of an MTU power play, and the second was a shorthander after the winger picked off an attempted pass by Mike Vannelli in the neutral zone and went in alone, tucking the puck past Minnesota goalie Jeff Frazee.
Moments after St. Louis’ second goal, Evan Kaufmann got Minnesota on the board by tipping Erik Johnson’s slapshot past Teslak, but St. Louis completed the hat trick at 6:36 of the second period to stake MTU to a 3-1 advantage. With the puck bouncing around the slot, it squirted free to Frazee’s left, where St. Louis tucked it into the unattended side of the goalmouth.
“Justin scored in our first game of the year,” said Russell. “Last weekend, he had his second and third goals of the season, and this weekend he had a hat trick and doubled his season output.”
Midway through the second period, penalties on Kaufmann and Mike Howe put the Huskies on a five-on-three power play, and MTU converted instantly with a goal by Tyler Shelast.
Lucia then pulled Frazee in favor of senior Kellen Briggs, who had been expected to spend Senior Night watching from the bench. Frazee allowed four goals on 15 shots in 30:19 of play, but Lucia was hardly about to pin the loss on him.
“Everything was a combination,” Lucia said, describing the Gophers’ play in front of Frazee as “awful.”
“I’m certainly not blaming everything on Jeff,” he added.
Despite the goalie change, the matchup continued to unravel for Minnesota, as MTU earned another five-on-three after an elbow by Ryan Stoa and a hold by Johnson. The Gophers killed the first penalty, but seconds later the Huskies scored on a tic-tac-toe play that was finished by Jimmy Kerr’s tap-in from the back door at 16:32.
Vannelli got one back for the Gophers with a slapper through a screen with two minutes to go in the second period, but the goal didn’t seem all that relevant — until Kaufmann scored with 21.9 seconds left in the frame.
Off a Stoa pass, Kaufmann unleashed a wide-open slapshot that found the top right corner to narrow the Tech lead to 5-3 after two periods.
The Gophers mounted several offensive challenges in the third period but couldn’t narrow the gap. Nine minutes in, Kaufmann rang the crossbar with a wrister, followed by another slapper from Johnson that Teslak stopped.
With two-plus minutes to go in regulation, Teslak (26 saves) again denied the Gophers, stopping Mike Carman’s stuff attempt and then Howe’s spinning shot off Carman’s rebound with an outstretched right pad.
“If he can see it right now, he’s going to stop it,” said Russell of Teslak.
Briggs (six saves) was pulled for the sixth attacker at 17:46, and with 43 seconds to go Kaufmann completed a hat trick of his own, scoring off a scramble in front to narrow the lead to 5-4. But that was the end of it as the Huskies cleared the puck to center ice for the final horn.
Amidst a team performance Lucia termed “disappointing,” Kaufmann’s effort was a bright spot.
“That’s because he works hard,” said Lucia of his diminutive right winger. “It’s not because he’s big.”
Next weekend, Minnesota (26-8-3, 18-7-3 WCHA) will host Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Michigan Tech (16-5-5, 11-12-5 WCHA), which finished with the sixth seed thanks to a tiebreaker win over Wisconsin, will visit Colorado College in the best-of-three series, with winners advancing to the Final Five.