MANKATO, Minn. — Minnesota coach Don Lucia was desperate for something to recharge a scoring outage that had been plaguing the Gophers. Anything. A pair of freshman still looking for their first collegiate points to provided the spark, as Nick Leddy put the Gophers on the board and Josh Birkholz scored two more.
Minnesota salvaged a split, beating Minnesota State 6-2 Saturday night at the Verizon Wireless Center.
“You can see (Birkholz) really elevate his play week to week,” Lucia said. “Leddy was very tentative Friday, but you could see he was much more relaxed tonight.”
Leddy picked off an MSU pass at the blue line and his shot through traffic found its way past MSU goaltender Austin Lee.
Two minutes later, Birkholz brought the puck into the Mavericks’ zone on an odd-man rush. His shot from the far circle slipped over Lee’s left shoulder.
“It might be a confidence thing and may be some luck,” said Birkholz, who registered five shots and was the victim of a circus save by Lee Friday.
Birkholz gave the Gophers a three-goal lead when he danced around two Mavericks’ defenders before backhanding another one over Lee’s shoulder in the 14th minute.
Leddy’s and Birkholz’s goals couldn’t have come at a more important time. MSU outshot the Gophers 18-4 in the first period Friday, so a strong start early was crucial Saturday.
“We’ve really been struggling to score goals, so we knew had to pound in some goals first and get the momentum,” Birkholz said.
Added Leddy, “I wanted to do anything to get the team going. It feels unbelievable and I can’t describe it (first career goal).”
The three goals the Gophers scored in the first period equaled the amount Minnesota scored in the previous three games — zero at Michigan, two at Michigan State and one Friday against the Mavericks.
MSU countered with a talented freshman scorer of its own. Tyler Pitlick put the Mavericks on the board when he deflected a shot by defenseman Ben Youds past Minnesota goalie Alex Kangas with four minutes left in the first period.
Pitlick scored the only goal of the second period when Kangas initially stopped his shot, but Kangas fanned on the clearing attempt and the puck rolled into the net for Pitlick’s fifth goal of the season.
It seemed the Mavericks had stolen the energy heading into the second intermission.
“The penalties got us into trouble in the second period and took away some of our momentum,” Lucia said.
The third period belonged to Minnesota.
Nico Sachetti redirected Cade Fairchild’s shot from the point past Lee six minutes into the period, giving the Gophers a two-goal lead.
After the Gophers fans chanted “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A” for the fourth time, most of the life had been sucked out of the arena.
“(MSU) sagged a little bit after that fourth goal,” Lucia said. “That was the kind of ‘separation goal’ we’ve been looking for.”
Minnesota forward Patrick White put the game away when he backhanded a rebound past Lee and 32 seconds later, Taylor Mattson capped it with another redirect, this time off a shot by Brian Schack.
After the game, Lucia said there was more at stake than just another notch in the loss column.
“Their pride more than anything,” Lucia said. “It’s frustrating for the coaches to be able to play so well one night and play just dismal another. We have to play like we did tonight both nights.”
Added Birkholz, “Each game you build more confidence when you’re playing well. This gives a lot of guys confidence and if everyone stays confident, we can be scary heading into Christmas.”
The Gophers (6-9-1, 4-7-1 WCHA) have two more games in 2009, next Friday and Saturday at Michigan Tech. MSU (7-8-1, 5-8-1) travels to No. 5 Bemidji State next weekend and doesn’t play a league game until Jan. 8 at North Dakota.