MINNEAPOLIS — Saturday night at Mariucci Arena, there was little doubt about the importance of the game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth.
The Gophers needed a win to preserve a chance at home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, not to mention shoring up the Gophers’ NCAA tournament hopes. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had an opportunity to move four points ahead of Minnesota in the standings and put a stranglehold on the fifth playoff seed.
In the end, Minnesota got the win it needed, rallying from a one-goal deficit late to take a 5-3 decision. Tony Lucia knotted it up and freshman Nico Sacchetti scored the game winner for Minnesota (14-11-7, 11-10-5 WCHA).
“We had to win tonight,” was Minnesota head coach Don Lucia’s simple observation.
Midway through the second period, Minnesota had built a two-goal lead that was promptly erased by Minnesota-Duluth (16-10-8, 10-9-7 WCHA). More specifically, the Gopher lead was undone by MacGregor Sharp, who notched a natural hat trick to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead in the third.
But UMD couldn’t hold the lead, leaving the Bulldogs tied with the Gophers and St. Cloud State for fifth place in the WCHA. Minnesota holds the tiebreaker for playoff seeding on both SCSU and UMD.
“Sometimes when you dig yourself out of a hole, you fight so hard to get back that you’ve got nothing left,” said Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin.
Sharp scored his third goal of the game and 17th of the season by picking off a Gopher clearing attempt near the blue line and blasting the puck past Minnesota netminder Alex Kangas to put the Bulldogs ahead at 6:01 of the third period.
But with the chance for home ice starting to slip away, Minnesota struck to tie it up again at 9:06. Tony Lucia was the goalscorer, taking a cross-ice pass from Jordan Schroeder while skating unmarked up the right side and firing it into a half-empty net as UMD goalie Alex Stalock had no chance to adjust.
“That was obviously a great goal. It gave us life,” said Don Lucia of Tony Lucia’s goal.
Minnesota wasn’t done. At 12:49, freshman Nico Sacchetti restored the Gopher lead with his third goal of the season, digging the puck out of the corner and circling up high before unleashing a shot that rattled the water bottle in the top left corner of the UMD net to make it 4-3.
Tony Lucia nearly gave the Gophers their fifth goal with a one-on-one after leaving the penalty box, but was elbowed by the Bulldogs’ Josh Meyers to give Minnesota another power play. Minnesota appeared to convert when Mike Hoeffel deflected Schroeder’s point shot, but on review the goal was disallowed due to a high stick.
Hoeffel made his next chance count on the scoreboard, though. UMD pulled Stalock with nearly a minute and a half left, and Hoeffel scored the empty-netter from 150 feet away, firing the puck dead-center from between his own faceoff circles to give Minnesota the insurance goal.
“We knew what was at stake tonight,” said Minnesota senior Justin Bostrom, who scored the Gophers’ second goal of the game on Senior Night. “It was a big win.”
Minnesota controlled play throughout most of the first period, and Gopher captain Ryan Stoa opened the scoring with a two-on-one transition goal at 5:04. Schroeder set Stoa up for the one-timer, Stoa’s 18th goal of the season.
With two minutes left in the period Stalock robbed Schroeder with a sweeping glove save while stacking his pads. The play came off a turnover forced by Stoa, who fed Schroeder for the attempt.
That kept the Gopher lead at a single goal despite holding a 10-3 advantage in shots on net at one point.
“At the start of the game they were the better team,” said Sandelin.
Bostrom gave Minnesota a 2-0 lead with a rebound goal off a three-on-two fast break. Joe Miller skated up the left side and found blueliner Cade Fairchild, who had split the defenders. Fairchild threw a backhand on net that Stalock saved, but the puck went right to a trailing Bostrom for the goal at 4:04.
The rest of the period belonged to the Bulldogs. Sharp took over midway through, scoring the first two UMD goals just over a minute apart. The first came on the power play when Sharp went for a wraparound and Kangas was late getting over; Sharp banked it off Kangas’ skate for the goal.
Sharp continued his close-in work on his second goal of the game, picking up a rebound at Kangas’ feet, skating through the crease and putting a backhand into the far side to tie the game at 2 at 11:03.
That set up the high-octane third period, with the win giving Minnesota control of its own destiny for home ice. Kangas, making his return to the net after ceding Friday’s start to freshman Kent Patterson, stopped 28 shots while Stalock made 22 saves.
Next weekend, Minnesota heads to Michigan Tech while Minnesota-Duluth hosts Alaska-Anchorage to wrap up the WCHA regular season.
Scott Brown contributed to this report.