DULUTH, Minn. — In a series that’s nearly 60 years old, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota couldn’t be much closer than they’ve been the last two seasons.
The teams went 1-1-2 in four games in 2010-11 as the Bulldogs finished fourth in the WCHA and the Gophers fifth.
Two league preseason polls for 2011-12 ranked UMD fifth and Minnesota sixth.
On Saturday, the No. 14-ranked Gophers used an amazingly-accurate shooting touch to sweep a league-opening series 5-4 before 6,784 fans, the largest crowd in the short history of Amsoil Arena. It was the same score as Friday’s remarkable comeback in which Minnesota scored late in regulation and late in sudden death.
Minnesota (4-0-0, 2-0-0 WCHA) trailed 2-0 just eight minutes into the remtach and then rocked the No. 9 Bulldogs (1-3-0, 0-2-0) with four straight goals on just six shots, then added a fifth straight. It was Minnesota’s first sweep of its in-state rival since Nov. 3-4, 2006. The teams are 5-5-2 the last 12 games.
“I knew it would be a battle, after what happened in Friday’s game; I liked to be challenged every minute,” said Minnesota goalie Kent Patterson, who made 46 saves each night, a career high. “I liked the way we came back Friday, and (Saturday), we showed we can finish a game. We made a lot of mistakes, but we’d rather learn while winning than losing.”
UMD came back after Friday’s disappointment and took a two-goal lead before Minnesota scored on all three of its power-play chances. The Gophers, despite being outshot 50-16, raced ahead 5-2 by midway through the third period and is 4-0 for the first time since 2001-02.
Nate Condon, who got Friday’s overtime winning goal, scored twice, including on a shot he didn’t touch. UMD rallied with goals 3:17 apart late in the third period from Caleb Herbert and J.T. Brown.
“We had spots when we were very good and spots when we were off,” said Brown. “It’s hard to be on the opposite side of things, but we have to look at how close these games were. There have been a few unlucky bounces the last three games, but we’ve battled back each game.”
Goal-scoring leader Travis Oleksuk connected from the left circle just 44 seconds into the game and Jack Connolly stuffed in a Brown rebound on a 5-on-3 power play for the early lead. Minnesota’s Jake Hansen countered on a shot from the high slot with 7:55 left in the first.
An inability to control the puck hurt the Bulldogs with 3:41 to go in the period on the craziest bounce of the night. Condon drove a shot off the offensive end boards and when UMD goalie Kenny Reiter couldn’t control the puck, defenseman Chris Casto accidently cleared a shot into the Bulldog net.
It was 2-2 after one period and shots favored UMD, 18-4.
“I have to make more big saves,” said Reiter. “I have to find that one off the boards. I wasn’t happy with that. I have to fight through screens on the power play. I have to find the puck.”
Nick Bjugstad needed just 70 seconds of the second period to get around a UMD defender and score unassisted. Condon made Minnesota 2-of-2 on power plays with 7:50 left in the second period on a screen from the left circle. Kyle Rau’s fourth goal of the season put Minnesota up 5-2 on a power play halfway through the final period.
“Our special teams and our goaltender won both games,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “Our power play (6-for-9 in the series) is confident right now. We hung in there and found a way to win.”
UMD did make the Gophers sweat, though. Herbert’s second goal of the series came with 8:22 left and Brown followed with 5:05 left. Reiter was pulled for an extra attacker with 80 seconds remaining and while that tactic worked for Minnesota the night before, the Bulldogs couldn’t get the equalizer.
“We didn’t quit, we had a good finish, but the end result is we lost twice at home,” said Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. “Their special teams were opportunistic and that was the difference.”
Minnesota came into the game as the highest-scoring team in Division I with a 6.67 goals per-game average and have outscored opponents by a 25-8 count. The Gophers were outshot, 100-30, in the series.
UMD goes on the road for the first time this weekend to Providence, while Minnesota is home against Vermont.