MINNEAPOLIS — Capping a sweep of a rare Friday-Sunday series, No. 7 Denver beat No. 8 Minnesota 4-1 at Mariucci Arena on the strength of a hat trick by freshman Tyler Bozak.
The nail in the coffin came at 6:25 of the third period, when Bozak scored an unassisted shorthanded goal that took the energy out of the Gopher skaters.
The result marked the first time in Minnesota history that the Gophers have started 0-4 in the WCHA, and was the first time Denver has swept Minnesota since Feb 27-28, 2004.
Denver sophomores Brock Trotter and Rhett Rakhshani dominated their shifts versus the Gophers on the weekend, as at least one of the two figured in each of Denver’s first seven goals of the series. Meanwhile, goaltender Peter Mannino was solid in net, keeping the Gophers’ top scorers in check.
“I learned last year that every game is important,” said Rakhshani, referring to the PairWise Rankings, which indicated that the Pioneers needed just one more win anywhere in the season last year to make the NCAA tournament.
“Road wins are huge,” added Mannino.
The third period had its drama as Denver’s Tim May took a five-minute major at 14:51, giving the Gophers a power play for nearly the rest of regulation. Minnesota piled on the shots, including two point-blank attempts by Tony Lucia and Blake Wheeler, but to no avail.
Minnesota pulled netminder Alex Kangas for the extra attacker with two and a half minutes left, before Bozak completed his hat trick on an empty-net shorthander.
“We definitely have a lot of threats on all our lines,” said Rakhshani of his teammates.
For Minnesota, meanwhile, the top two lines scored only one goal in the two games, while the power play was 0-for-10 on the weekend.
“I think we might be a little mentally weak,” said Wheeler. “We have to be able to take their punch.”
Wheeler opened the scoring at 11:33 of the first period after a failed clearing attempt by Mannino. Linemate Lucia intercepted the attempt in the corner and passed to Evan Kaufmann behind the net. Kaufmann then found Wheeler in a lane 10 feet in front of the net, and Wheeler’s one-timer beat Mannino for the early lead.
The last five minutes of the first period belong to the Pioneers, however. Bozak scored four-on-four at 16:13 on a one-on-one break with Minnesota defenseman David Fischer. Bozak skated into the zone along the right board and cut to the center, gathered speed around the backpedaling Fischer and found a shooting lane. He fanned on his first attempt but after reloading wristed a shot past Kangas.
“It looked kinda like a fake shot,” chuckled Bozak.
Denver scored on the power play just 73 seconds later when Rakhshani buried a rebound puck over Kangas’ blocker that went off a Minnesota defenseman.
Second-period highlights included a scrum halfway through the period after Trotter was penalized for running Kangas. DU coach George Gwozdecky was not pleased with the call as it appeared Minnesota’s R.J. Anderson checked Trotter into Kangas. The penalty ended a power play for the Pioneers.
During the second intermission the Red and Gold small fries skated to a 1-1 tie, prompting some of most animated cheering from the sparse crowd as the Gold team came from behind late after missing the net twice. Presumably, many would-be attendees were watching Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson break the NFL single-game rushing record versus the San Diego Chargers just across the Mississippi River.
The 0-4 start in the WCHA leaves the two-time defending MacNaughton Cup champions looking up and inward.
“It’s just a product of us pressing too hard,” commented Minnesota’s Ben Gordon. “We just need to get back to the basics and relax.”
“Get a puck to the point, hammer it, get a tip or a rebound. We haven’t gotten a lot of those types of goals,” said Wheeler.
“Once we start to score some goals, things will fall into place,” added Lucia.
Next weekend Minnesota will travel to Minnesota State on Friday and host the Mavericks on Saturday. Denver is idle.