MINNEAPOLIS — On a night reserved for honoring its seniors, the Minnesota Golden Gophers inched ever-so-slightly closer to what remains a mathematically possible NCAA tournament at-large bid courtesy of a goal scored, appropriately, by a senior.
Jacob Cepis’ goal at 6:28 of the second period Saturday held up as the winner in Minnesota’s second 5-2 victory over the Michigan Tech Huskies in as many nights at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota maintained its grasp on fifth place in the WCHA with a two-point lead over Colorado College, which took three out of four points from Minnesota-Duluth in Colorado Springs.
“The bottom line is we’ve been hot and … it’s exciting,” said Cepis. “Right now we’re playing some good hockey — I mean, there’s some things we could fix out there but two wins is two wins and we needed those points.”
Junior Jake Hansen (2-1–3) and freshman Erik Haula (1-2–3) each had a three-point nights while senior Cade Fairchild chipped in with a pair of assists. Kent Patterson’s 24 saves were plenty for the Gophers (15-12-5, 12-10-4 WCHA) to extend their unbeaten streak to four games.
Milos Gordic and Ryan Furne scored for the Huskies (4-26-4, 2-22-2) with Jacob Johnstone assisting on each goal. Josh Robinson turned aside 31 Minnesota shots.
The series sweep is the first for Minnesota since Nov. 19-20 when the Gophers defeated the Huskies 6-4 and 4-2 in Houghton, Mich. It also marks Minnesota’s first sweep at home since taking a pair from Massachusetts to open the season. Minnesota raised its record to 171-76-15 in 263 all-time meetings with Michigan Tech including a 102-28-3 advantage over the Huskies in Minneapolis.
Michigan Tech, second in the league in fewest penalty minutes coming into the weekend, was called for 50 minutes in penalties in the game, including 40 in a penalty-marred second period. The teams combined for 79 minutes in penalties in the middle stanza, including fighting majors to Minnesota’s Jake Parenteau and Michigan Tech’s Bennett Royer.
The Gophers benefited from Michigan Tech’s uncharacteristic lack of discipline to the tune of three power-play goals.
“I thought we came out and played a good solid game today,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “Obviously, our power play was critical tonight and guys did a good job on the [penalty] kill.”
“The only disappointment for me was that we got a little undisciplined and took some penalties after whistles. That’s something you’ve got to learn from because you get to the end of the year and a bad penalty can end your season.”
But Hansen, whose three-point night included a late third-period goal and an assist, looked at it differently.
“A lot of teams in the past thought they’d be able to push us around,” said Hansen. “It just shows that we have our teammates’ backs and we’ll do anything and not let guys throw us around like [has happened] in the past couple years.”
In the last regular-season home game for Minnesota seniors Cepis, Fairchild, Mike Hoeffel, Kevin Wehrs and Pat White — fellow seniors Jay Barriball and Alex Kangas sat out with injuries — it was a freshman who opened the scoring, albeit with a senior’s assist.
A Daniel Holmberg tripping penalty just 1:45 into the opening period gave Minnesota a power play and a faceoff in the Michigan Tech zone to Robinson’s left. White drew the puck back to Erik Haula, whose blast from the right point squeezed through a leaping Jake Hansen screen past Robinson just four seconds later for his sixth goal of the season.
But lackadaisical play in its end later in the period would cost Minnesota the lead as a trio of Michigan Tech freshmen combined to knot the score at 1-1 at the 11:37 mark.
Johnstone dug the puck out of the corner to Furne, who found Gordic all by himself below the hash marks in front of the Minnesota net. Gordic calmly turned and fired his 15th goal of the season behind Patterson.
Freshman scoring is nothing new to the Huskies. Furne’s third-period goal — also assisted by Johnstone — was the 40th of the season for Michigan Tech freshmen, accounting for 56 percent of the team’s total goal-scoring output.
As disjointed as Minnesota appeared to end the first period, the penalty-marred middle stanza was all Gophers with freshman Mark Alt and Hansen providing bookends to Cepis’ goal. Alt’s goal at the 1:51 mark of the period began as a pretty give-and-go with Hansen but finished with Alt letting a shot go from between the circles as he fell to the ice.
“We went offside three or four times in the first period, we didn’t get pucks behind their defense and we didn’t attack the net,” Lucia said. “I thought the guys came out [in the second period] with a lot more urgency.”
Lucia was happy with the way his seniors went out at home.
“You want to win your last regular season home game because there’s no guarantee we’re going to be back here in a couple weeks,” said Lucia. “We still have some work to do but it’s nice to see them close out the regular season at home with a couple of wins.”
Next up for Minnesota is a road battle with in-state rival Bemidji State with a home-ice playoff series on the line. Hansen, for one, isn’t taking the Beavers lightly.
“We know going up to Bemidji it’s going to be a tough battle, they’re a pretty good team,” said Hansen. “Our goal is to go up there and win four points and get the home ice.”
It doesn’t get any easier next week for the Huskies, who close out the regular season hosting North Dakota in Houghton.
Video: Minnesota coach Don Lucia:
Video: Minnesota’s Jake Hansen:
Video: Minnesota’s Jacob Cepis: