College Hockey:
Wheeler Leads Gophers Past Bulldogs

— In the battle of Interstate 35, Minnesota stretched its unbeaten streak against Minnesota Duluth to seven games by defeating the Bulldogs Friday night at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers set the tone with an early goal from Blake Wheeler — one of two for the junior center — and never looked back en route to a 4-1 win.

“We’re playing good hockey right now,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, whose Gophers scored four goals for the fourth time in five games, after a stretch of eight games without more than two. “You have to have your seniors step up, and your best players step up, and they certainly did tonight.”

UMD head coach Scott Sandelin, conversely, was not a happy man.

“To me it’s effort. When you get effort, and you compete, that’s what this team needs to do every shift and every period of every game. And you know what, when we don’t we have trouble,” he said. “We can’t dig ourselves holes and expect to climb out of them.”

The Bulldogs — making their first visit to Mariucci in just over two years — generated 26 shots but relatively few scoring chances. Minnesota netminder Alex Kangas made 25 saves, while Alex Stalock, in his 33rd consecutive start for UMD, stopped 23 shots.

Despite the win, Minnesota will take to the road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Although Minnesota State’s win over Michigan Tech and St. Cloud State’s tie at North Dakota left the Gophers a chance to finish as high as a tie for fifth place in the standings, the Gophers lose all relevant tiebreakers with SCSU and Wisconsin and will be the seventh seed regardless of what happens Saturday. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will end up either eighth or ninth.

“All we can control is what we’re doing, not what anybody else is doing. It looks like we’re going to be on the road to start the playoffs, but that’s what we earned,” said Lucia. “But that’s a week away, and all we can control is tomorrow.”

The Gophers wasted no time getting on the board. Just 37 seconds into the game, Ben Gordon led a two-on-one up the right side, finding Wheeler unmarked in the slot. With the net wide open, Minnesota’s scoring leader easily potted the goal to make it 1-0.

“Blake, Ben and Mike [Howe] had a great start to the game,” said Evan Kaufmann, who scored the Gophers’ third goal. “They were firing on all cylinders, and an early goal like that is always nice.”

UMD defenseman Josh Meyers came within a hairsbreadth of evening the score minutes later, but his power-play slapshot rang off the crossbar and stayed out. Instead, an elbow by Bulldog Mike Curry gave Minnesota its first power play, and Gordon doubled the lead. Off a centering pass from Mike Hoeffel, a wide-open Gordon one-timed his 13th goal of the season past Stalock on the glove side at 12:11.

Kaufmann opened up the three-goal advantage at 2:27 of the second period. Ryan Flynn worked free from a defender behind the cage and fed out front to Kaufmann, who backhanded a semi-no-look shot just inside the left post.

“I got pretty lucky there, but at the beginning of the year none of those were going in and maybe now they’re going to start falling for us,” said Kaufmann. “We’ll take what we can get, I guess.”

A Wheeler trip put the Bulldogs on their second power play of the game, and for the first time in 19 tries, UMD scored a man-advantage goal. Junior Michael Gergen did the honors, cruising into the high slot against a retreating defense and sliding the puck by Kangas to narrow the Gopher lead to 3-1 at 5:36.

Late in the second, Minnesota Duluth picked up a brief five-on-three after a Stu Bickel charge and then a hook by Flynn. The two-man advantage carried over to the third, but Minnesota aptly killed both penalties to retain the two-goal lead.

The third period was mostly uneventful the rest of the way, with Wheeler providing some entertainment by flinging the puck the length of the ice with Stalock pulled, resulting in his second goal of the game and 15th of the season, and the 4-1 final.

The teams rematch Saturday at 7:07 p.m. CT at Mariucci in the regular-season finale for each squad.

“We’ve just got to figure it out,” said Sandelin. “The season’s not done. We’ve got a game tomorrow night. We’ve got to win that game tomorrow night, and then the playoffs are a new season.”

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