MINNEAPOLIS — This weekend, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the St. Cloud State Huskies know they are playing to keep their seasons alive.
With both teams in precarious situations in the all-important PairWise Rankings, their first-round WCHA playoff series will also serve as an NCAA tournament eliminator.
In Game 1 Friday night, the Gophers (16-12-7) took the first step toward extending their 2008-09 campaign, holding off the determined Huskies (18-16-3) for a 4-2 win at Mariucci Arena.
The Minnesota power play — which had been just 1-for-15 over the previous two weeks — came alive, scoring the first two goals of the game to set the tone before the Gophers and Huskies traded goals the rest of the way.
“It’s hard to score five-on-five this time of year,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “We had one [even-strength goal], they had one and we won the battle of special teams.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota netminder Alex Kangas turned in a second consecutive strong performance, stopping 29 of 31 shots to outduel SCSU goalie Jase Weslosky, who made 33 saves.
“He was timely,” said Lucia of Kangas, “and I thought the guys responded and played really well.”
Minnesota dominated the first period and scored on its first power play of the game. Freshman Nico Sacchetti converted the opportunity, putting away the rebound of Patrick White’s shot at 12:24 of the opening frame.
Kangas wasn’t tested much early, but made a nice stop on a blast from SCSU’s Travis Novak, a one-timer on which Novak swung so hard that he slipped and fell in the process.
The Huskies, though, ratcheted up the pressure as the game went along, making the second period an up-and-down affair before breaking through in the third.
“We only had five shots [on net] in the first period,” said St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko. “Then in the second we were coming, and we got them in the third. … We started to chip away.”
Weslosky denied Sacchetti a second goal on a breakaway in the opening minute of the second period, and the Huskies nearly tied the game when Garrett Roe’s shot end up sliding through the crease behind Kangas after a clearing attempt hit David Fischer’s skate.
Kangas made a sparkling save a moment later — using his outstretched arm and little else — as the Huskies revved up their offense. And the Gophers made another power play count, extending their lead to 2-0 at 14:57.
Mike Hoeffel did the honors just 14 seconds into the five-on-four; the sophomore shoveled home the rebound of Ryan Stoa’s initial shot from the right faceoff circle for his 12th goal of the season.
SCSU’s Jordy Christian missed a wide-open net after an odd bounce in the Minnesota defensive zone, but the Huskies made up for that seconds later.
A failed Gopher clearing attempt ended up on the stick of Ryan Lasch, who fed Roe down low to Kangas’ left. The Huskies’ overall scoring leader took it from there, zipping home his 16th goal of the season to narrow the score to 2-1 at 10:03.
But Minnesota promptly answered to kill any momentum for St. Cloud. Jordan Schroeder notched his 28th assist of the season with a drop pass for Jay Barriball that the junior winger buried high to Weslosky’s glove side.
Barriball’s 10th goal of the season restored Minnesota’s two-goal advantage at 13:41, but SCSU wasn’t ready to go away.
Roe pulled the Huskies back within one at 15:20 on another power play. Drew Leblanc drifted above the goal line and fired on net, and though Kangas thought he had made the glove save, Roe stuffed the puck home for his second goal of the game and a 3-2 score.
Weslosky left the SCSU net with just under a minute left in regulation, but the WCHA’s top two scorers in the regular season teamed up to end the rally attempt. Schroeder stole the puck and fed Stoa, who skimmed the puck into the empty net for the 4-2 final.
If both coaches are to be believed, Saturday’s style of play will look a lot like Friday’s.
“It was a great playoff game,” said Lucia. “Tomorrow will be the same way.”
“It’s going to be the exact same game tomorrow,” said Motzko, who doubtless did not mean in terms of the scoreboard.
The same two teams hit the ice at 7 p.m. Saturday for Game 2. A Minnesota win sends the Gophers to the WCHA Final Five, while a victory for SCSU will result in a decisive Sunday contest.