MINNEAPOLIS — On a day Minnesotans set aside to celebrate the great game of hockey, the unranked University of Minnesota Golden Gophers appeared intent from the outset of its meeting with Denver University to prevent the fourth-ranked Pioneers from crashing the party. The Gophers jumped out to a 3-0 lead after one period and cruised to a 7-3 victory in front of 9,917 at Mariucci Arena on Saturday, Feb 12.
The game was a featured component of Hockey Day Minnesota, an annual event in which Fox Sports North and the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild promote hockey, which included two outdoor high school games in Moorhead, Minn., followed by the Gophers and Denver at Mariucci Arena before culminating with the Wild hosting the St. Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center.
“The story was all about Minnesota tonight,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “I’m just glad that Hockey Day Minnesota is only once a year.”
The Minnesota victory snaps Denver’s seven-game winning streak over the Gophers (12-12-4, 9-10-3 WCHA) overall, and is Minnesota’s first win over the Pioneers (18-7-5, 14-5-3 WCHA) in six attempts at home.
Defenseman Cade Fairchild led the way for Minnesota with a goal and three assists as the Gophers scoring barrage was divided among seven different players, including Patrick White who scored his second of the season and first since Halloween. In addition, Nick Bjugstad and Taylor Matson each ended 10-and 14-game scoring droughts respectively.
Fairchild’s performance came as no surprise to Gophers coach Don Lucia, who also spread the credit.
“Cade’s a good hockey player and sometimes you just need guys to finish on your setups too and then there’s more points to go around for everybody,” Lucia said.
A day after stonewalling Minnesota with a 36-save performance, Denver goaltender Sam Brittain was chased from the game after Erik Haula’s second goal in as many nights put the Gophers in front 4-0 just 33 seconds into the second period. Brittain allowed the four goals on just 15 shots, and was replaced by Adam Murray who surrendered three goals on 28 shots.
Fairchild said the Gophers did nothing to alter their game plan against Brittain other than bury the opportunities presented, especially down low.
“We looked at the tape from last night and we really felt like we had a lot of good chances but we couldn’t execute,” said Fairchild. “The emphasis tonight was really to bear down and go to the dirty areas to score goals and we were able to do that.”
Lucia was more succinct when he jokingly stated, “We read the offensive manual and shared it today.”
Nearly 200 feet away, on the other hand, Minnesota’s Kent Patterson was solid once again for Minnesota in goal, stopping 31 of 34 Pioneer shots on the night. Patterson finished the weekend allowing the explosive Pioneers a total of four goals on 64 shots.
The Pioneers briefly led 1-0 just 5:32 into the contest, but a video review indicated that Denver’s Dustin Jackson intentionally redirected the puck with his skate and the goal was disallowed. Less than two minutes later, Cepis’ wraparound shot between Brittain’s legs gave the Gophers momentum they would never relinquish.
Gwozdecky said the desperation in Minnesota’s game was clearly evident.
“They wanted it in the worst way for same number of reasons and we just didn’t have that same level of urgency,” said Gwozdecky. “They executed well, they had us running around, they were very good in all areas of the game. For a team that needs a game as badly as they did, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
After going 0-6 on the power play on Friday night, Minnesota finally solved Denver’s conference-leading penalty kill with goals on two of its three opportunities, and Fairchild was a catalyst on both goals. With Jason Zucker off for cross-checking, Fairchild’s tape-to-tape pass from the right point found Mike Hoeffel alone for a back-door tap in at 12:22.
Following a major checking-from-behind penalty and a game misconduct issued to Denver’s Jon Cook for a hit on Minnesota defenseman Jake Parenteau, Fairchild completed his big night with a slap shot from the left point which beat Murray clean for a 6-0 Minnesota advantage after two periods.
Goals by Beau Bennett, Chris Knowlton, and John Lee in a penalty-marred final period made the final outcome tighter than it actually was. Fighting majors on Minnesota’s Jake Hansen and Denver’s William Wrenn contributed to 54 minutes in third-period penalties and will result in each serving a one-game suspension next Friday.
“It’s huge,” said Fairchild of the win over the highly-regarded Pioneers. “Obviously it gives us confidence, gives our goaltender confidence. Overall it just kind of tells us we can play with the top teams in our league.”
Lucia agreed with his senior defenseman.
“Like I told them after [the game] the top three teams right now in the league this weekend are Denver, North Dakota, and UMD, and we’re 3-3-2 with those teams,” said Lucia. “We’ve proven we can play with the top teams; it’s just that consistency from an offensive standpoint that has hurt us.”
The Pioneers return to Denver next week to host last-place Michigan Tech while Minnesota takes a trip down I-94 to battle the Wisconsin Badgers.