MINNEAPOLIS — As if completing a series sweep wasn’t difficult enough in the WCHA this time of year – this weekend being a perfect example – Minnesota was faced with doing so in front of Gopher hockey royalty on Saturday night at Mariucci Arena against Bemidji State.
With several members of Minnesota’s 2002 team on hand to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Frozen Four title, the current Gophers, behind Erik Haula’s three-point night (two goals, assist) and 21 Kent Patterson saves, finished the weekend strong with a 4-1 win over the Beavers in front of 10,202.
The win ensures No. 7 Minnesota (21-11-1, 17-7-0 WCHA) of hosting a first-round WCHA playoff series.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia said the game was as difficult as he expected.
“Bemidji came out and I thought played extremely hard tonight,” said Lucia. “It was one of those games, even though fortunately we were able to play with the lead, but you never felt safe in the game tonight.”
Brad Hunt scored BSU’s lone goal of the weekend on a late first-period power play and goalie Dan Bakala made 28 saves in a losing effort.
The Beavers (15-14-3, 9-12-3 WCHA) nearly doubled their shot total from the previous night (13), even outshooting the Gophers 9-8 in the third period, but goals were tough to come by for BSU all weekend.
“We played our hearts out,” said Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore. “We pressured the puck, we worked hard, we skated hard and we tried to create turnovers. We had scoring chances and when we had some chances, I thought Patterson played well.
“I thought we gave it everything we had and, again, the result wasn’t there but the effort was.”
“To win 4-1 against a team that’s that hot right now is huge, especially after last weekend,” Minnesota’s Jake Hansen said of Bemidji State’s 11-4-2 stretch in 17 games coming into the weekend.
As they did on Friday, the Gophers grabbed the early lead when Hansen (two assists) weaved his way around a Bemidji State defender and fed the puck to Haula breaking up the slot. Haula fired a wrister from between the circles, beating Bakala for his 13th of the season at 1:17 of the first.
“Hansen made a great play on the blue line and the goalie was just kind of out of position and I was able to put one in,” Haula said of his goal.
“You stub your toe so quick into the game that always is tough,” said Serratore. “Last night, we did it and we did the same thing tonight, so you hope you get that first goal and then the emotion goes on your side, the momentum goes on your side but it just didn’t happen.”
With Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad off for a checking from behind penalty, Hunt let go of a cannon from just inside the Gophers’ blue line that blew past Patterson’s glove the 17:14 mark of the opening period. Hunt’s goal was his 108th point as a Beaver, setting a new career record for points by a defenseman (24-84-108).
Just 2:05 into the second period, however, the Gophers regained the lead on Hansen’s goal when the senior forward deflected defenseman Justin Holl’s slapper from the right point up and over Bakala.
Minnesota doubled its lead five minutes later when Haula one-timed a Kyle Rau pass behind Bakala just seven seconds into a power play created by a tripping call on Bemidji State’s Jeff Jubinville.
It looked as if the 3-1 lead would hold up until Seth Ambroz’s empty-net goal with 1:33 to go provided the final margin.
With four games left on the schedule, the last two series are about maintaining position atop the WCHA standings and solidifying position in the PairWise rankings.
“It’s all about us now,” Haula said about Minnesota’s chances moving forward. “Everything’s in our hands. If we keep winning and keep playing great, we can accomplish everything that we want to this year.”
The Gophers travel to Nebraska-Omaha next weekend to take on the Mavericks, while Bemidji State returns home to face Wisconsin.