MINNEAPOLIS — Thanks to the vagaries of the WCHA’s unbalanced schedule, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota did not meet for the first four-plus months of the season.
Friday night at Mariucci Arena, their first matchup of 2008-09 settled nothing as the Gophers and Bulldogs skated to a 2-2 draw.
For Minnesota, the tie was hard-earned; the Gophers rallied twice from one-goal deficits and were forced to kill a five-minute major penalty late in the second period as well.
The tie kept the Bulldogs in fifth place in the league standings, still two points ahead of the Gophers, who moved into a tie for sixth with St. Cloud State.
“I just thought it was a pretty even game,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin, who was satisfied if not thrilled with the point. “I thought we played well.”
“It was a good, up-and-down, entertaining WCHA game,” concurred Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.
The game was important for both teams, but arguably more so for Minnesota, which maintains the hope of home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs as well as the possibility of an at-large NCAA tournament berth.
Minnesota Duluth is ahead of Minnesota in both the league standings and the all-important PairWise Rankings, and the draw makes Saturday’s rematch all but a must-win for the Gophers.
“Tomorrow night, with a win we do catch up with them [in the standings],” said Patrick White, who scored Minnesota’s first goal. “Plus we’d have the tiebreaker, so it’s the most important game thus far.”
Minnesota Duluth (16-9-8, 10-8-7 WCHA) outshot Minnesota (13-11-7, 10-10-5 WCHA) 36-33 as both goaltenders put in solid performances. For UMD, stalwart Alex Stalock stopped 31 shots, while Minnesota freshman Kent Patterson saved 34 in his first start as a collegian.
“He did a great job,” said Lucia of Patterson. “He’s worked hard all year and we wanted to give him an opportunity. … He did what we asked him to do.”
“I think I gave up one more rebound than I wanted to,” demurred Patterson, who acknowledged that he had been “itching” to get his chance in net for Minnesota.
UMD co-captain Matt Greer opened the scoring at 4:00 of the first period with his third goal of the season.
On the play, Drew Akins dug the puck out of the corner and fed it back to Chad Huttel, whose point shot rebounded sharply to Greer at the edge of the crease. The senior winger had three-quarters of the net available and easily tapped it home.
Minnesota knotted it up at 15:47 off a misplay by Stalock. The junior came out of his crease to play the puck, but Ryan Flynn picked off his clearing attempt. With Stalock scrambling to get back in position, Flynn passed to a wide-open White, who blasted his sixth goal of the season just inside the left post.
UMD retook the lead just 12 seconds into the second period thanks to senior Nick Kemp. The senior winger took a drop pass from Mike Connolly and fired on net, then chased his own rebound to put away his fourth goal of the season and give the Bulldogs a 2-1 edge.
But the Gophers struck back on Jordan Schroeder’s 13th goal of the season. The playmaking rookie played the role of scorer this time, splitting the Bulldog defense to receive a headman pass from captain Ryan Stoa.
Schroeder didn’t have an ideal angle to attack the UMD net, but he made up for that with patience, waiting until Stalock went down to flip the puck into the goalmouth at 15:15 to knot the game at 2.
Moments later, Minnesota Duluth had an opportunity to retake the lead when Gopher Jake Hansen hit Greer from behind, earning a five-minute major and the obligatory game misconduct.
But Minnesota killed the penalty — which spanned the rest of the second period and the opening moments of the third — without incident. During the rest of the period, the Bulldogs controlled play for increasing stretches, maintaining possession in the offensive zone for a minute at a time or more.
“I didn’t think we lost any momentum [after the Minnesota kill],” said Sandelin.
Minnesota had its chances as well, including a lead pass from Schroeder that couldn’t quite find a Gopher stick with seconds to go in regulation.
In overtime, the Gophers had the better opportunities, especially during the final minute, which ended with a flurry in front of Stalock but no goal.
“It’s not a terrible start to the weekend,” said White. “But tomorrow’s going to be a big game for us, obviously.”
The same two teams hit the ice for the series finale at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Mariucci.