MINNEAPOLIS — With Minnesota Wild prospects Jason Zucker of Denver (second round pick in 2010) and Minnesota’s Erik Haula (seventh round, 2009) playing at nearby Mariucci Arena, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher took advantage of the opportunity to get a first-hand look at perhaps the future of his team.
Fletcher likely did not leave disappointed as Zucker notched the winning goal and chipped in an assist while Haula potted the Gophers’ only tally in fourth-ranked Denver’s 2-1 victory over un-ranked Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Early in the third period in a 1-1 game, Zucker exerted his will on the game with a rush up the right side, blowing past stunned Minnesota defenseman Aaron Ness on his way to the net before muscling a backhand shot between Minnesota goaltender Kent Patterson’s legs.
“[Patterson] played great all night,” said Zucker of the Gopher goaltender who made 28 saves in a losing effort. “I was really surprised that that went in but I just tried to put the puck on net and it happened to go in for me.”
“The play that he made and the plays that he created have been the types and quality of plays that he’s been making all year long,” said Denver head coach George Gwozdecky. “He made a big play on something that really, coming up the ice, didn’t look very dangerous . . . but obviously he made it dangerous.”
The goal was Zucker’s team-leading 18th goal of the season, an honor he temporarily shared with linemate Drew Shore after shore deflected a David Makowski shot behind Patterson at 12:42 of the second period. Makowski also assisted on Zucker’s game-winner.
Pioneer goaltender Sam Brittain was the difference as the freshman had the look of a veteran in turning aside 36 Gopher shots in the win which, coupled with Minnesota-Duluth’s stunning 8-2 loss at home to St. Cloud State, gives Denver sole possession of first place in the WCHA.
Haula opened the scoring midway through the second period when he redirected Justin Holl’s shot from the right point past Brittain for his fourth of the season, but just his first since Nov. 28 against Michigan. It was all the Gophers could muster against the young goaltender who shrugged off the suggestion that he doesn’t play like a rookie.
“I’ve had a lot of experience playing big games but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous going out there,” said Brittain. “You’ve got to be on your game early because [the Gophers] were coming hard.”
The teams played a scoreless, if imbalanced, first period which saw the Pioneers sandwich 10 shots around nine straight by the Gophers. Zucker had a pair of outstanding scoring chances in the first including an end-to-end rush down the left side which Patterson stifled with a toe at the right post.
Both teams were missing vital cogs in their respective attacks with Minnesota’s leading goal scorer Jay Barriball nursing a lower body injury and Denver’s Kyle Ostrow scratched from the lineup after having unexpected surgery earlier in the day at the U of M Hospital. Gwozdecky indicated Ostrow is recovering well and he hopes to have Ostrow back on the ice in 3-4 weeks.
The two teams face off again on Saturday at 7 p.m.