ST. PAUL, Minn. — Black and white. Hot and cold. Night and day.
That was the story of Friday’s Rensselaer-Minnesota matchup, in which the Engineers leaped out to a 3-0 lead against a jittery and sometimes listless Gopher squad before Minnesota rallied for four unanswered goals — three on the power play — en route to a 4-3 win at the Xcel Energy Center in the Ice Breaker Invitational.
After nearly two periods of RPI dominance, Minnesota got a power-play goal to narrow the lead to two, then scored three more times in the third, with the winning goal coming off the stick of Kyle Okposo during a five-minute power play.
The Gophers got that opportunity when RPI’s Andrew Lord was whistled for hitting Brian Schack from behind, drawing a major penalty and a game misconduct. With just under five minutes left in the third, the call meant that Minnesota would spend the rest of regulation on the power play.
“I didn’t even see the hit — I didn’t realize we were even getting a five until the power play started and they announced it,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “We have some guys that can make some plays, and they finally did at the end.”
“[The official] made the call that he thought was proper in that situation,” said Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert of the pivotal whistle. “I have a lot of respect for the officials and the work that they do, and they call the game as they see it. They saw it a certain way, and that’s their judgment. We don’t mean to question their judgment; they’re doing a tough job out there and I respect them for it.”
RPI killed nearly four minutes of the Lord major, but with 1:11 left, Minnesota completed its rally. Jay Barriball collected a deflected pass and hit Okposo with a centering pass that Okposo tucked underneath Engineer netminder Mathias Lange (24 saves) for the 4-3 lead.
“The puck just squirted down to Jay, and I just had my stick down. I knew he was going to find it,” said Okposo of the winning goal. “It just found my stick and I tapped it home.”
The Lord penalty was the last in a flurry of calls in the third period, all but one of which went against the Engineers. For the game, Minnesota went 3-for-11 on the power play, while RPI was 1-for-5.
“You don’t expect to get any calls coming into this rink, playing Minnesota with WCHA refs,” said Appert. “We came out on the short end of some unfortunate calls in the third period. … Without looking at the tape it’s tough to say, but I’m surprised at how many [penalties] we had in a row.”
Early on, Rensselaer opened the scoring on Matt Angers-Goulet’s second goal of the young season. Linemate Tyler Helfrich made the play, fighting off a check along the right-side boards and one-handing a centering pass to Angers-Goulet, who one-timed the puck over the left shoulder of Minnesota netminder Jeff Frazee (25 saves) at 9:36 of the first period. The assist was Helfrich’s third this year.
The second period was more of the same. After a Mike Hoeffel interference call, a pair of Minnesota natives teamed up to give RPI a 2-0 advantage. Chase Polacek (Edina, Minn.) tipped in a shot by defenseman and fellow freshman Bryan Brutlag (Lakeville, Minn.) from the point at 11:49.
A few minutes later, a failed Minnesota clearing attempt found its way onto the stick of Lord, who banked a backhander off the left post to give RPI a 3-0 lead at 15:12. With Minnesota showing little offense to that point, credit went to the RPI defensive effort.
“If you look at their shots on goal I think people would say, ‘What a great two defensive periods,’ but it was because of our forecheck, not because we were sitting back,” said Appert.
“I thought we were tight when the game began — I don’t think we had the sense of urgency that you have to have, and you know what, I thought they outworked us, especially for the first two periods,” said Lucia.
But the Gophers finally sparked themselves with a power-play goal. Peter Merth tripped Barriball on a breakaway, and shortly after Okposo fed a cross-crease pass along the goal line to Stoa, who one-timed it home at 16:44 to narrow the lead to 3-1.
“[That goal] got them life, got them jumping and that went into the third period,” said Appert. “With us in the box most of the third period, it continued to be that way.”
Five minutes into the third, Blake Wheeler got Minnesota within one. Skating four-on-four, Gopher captain Derek Peltier got squeezed off the puck just inside the blue line, but Wheeler skated it down, cut across the slot and slipped the puck along the ice past Lange’s glove side to make it 3-2.
Another RPI penalty paid off for the Gophers at 10:52. A high-stick by Angers-Goulet gave Minnesota its ninth power play, and Okposo hit Evan Kaufmann with a centering pass that Kaufmann redirected through Lange’s five-hole to produce a 3-3 score, setting up Okposo’s winner.
Four goals or not, Appert certainly didn’t blame Lange for the Gopher surge.
“I think he made Minnesota earn what they scored,” Appert said of Lange. “I don’t think any of them were soft goals or weak goals, and I thought he made some outstanding saves on back-door plays and odd-man rushes.”
The win sends Minnesota (1-0-0) into the Ice Breaker title game Saturday against Michigan, a 4-3 overtime winner over Boston College. RPI (1-1-0) will play BC in the consolation.