OMAHA, Neb. — No. 6 Minnesota lost one-third of its top line Saturday due to injury. When the time came for someone else to step up though, it was a freshman that led the way.
Indeed, Gophers newcomer Kyle Rau’s impressive first season with the team continued at speed Saturday, with Rau scoring two goals in a 3-2 win over Nebraska-Omaha in front of 11,772 at CenturyLink Center.
Gophers star center Nick Bjugstad left the game with an undisclosed injury in the game’s second period, but Rau stepped up, slotting home his 15th and 16th goals of the season.
UNO (14-14-6, 11-10-5 WCHA) held court early in Saturday’s game, but a quick equalizer from Gophers defenseman Mark Alt and a pair of goals from Rau turned the game around in the visitors’ favor.
With the sweep, including Friday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Mavericks, Minnesota (23-11-1, 19-7-0) retained its two-point lead at the top of the WCHA standings over second-place Minnesota Duluth.
“Both of this weekend’s wins are satisfying,” Gophers coach Don Lucia told reporters after Saturday’s game. “When you get to this point of the year, and with what we’re fighting for, (these games) were both hard-fought, and I’m happy for our players.”
As for UNO, with its chances of clinching home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs hanging in the balance, the Mavericks needed to start Saturday’s game well, and they did.
Things were looking good for the hosts in the game’s opening throes, and UNO made its early superiority count. Mavericks forward Brent Gwidt did the honors, beating Gophers goaltender Kent Patterson low from in close 6:05 into the game.
Not long after Gwidt’s opener, though, Minnesota took over.
Just 41 seconds after UNO took its lead, the Gophers equalized. Alt was credited with the goal, smartly backhanding a shot past UNO goalie Ryan Massa from the left circle, beating the freshman goaltender to his near-side post.
Minnesota then took a lead of its own at 9:20 of the first period, with Rau beating Massa, whose night came then came to a quick end.
Massa was pulled after only making two saves in just over nine minutes, with UNO coach Dean Blais opting to send in veteran backup netminder John Faulkner.
Minnesota’s unquestionable quality continued to shine through during Saturday’s second period, and the Gophers doubled their lead near the game’s halfway point.
Rau’s second goal of the night, this time with the freshman beating Faulkner low from close range, made the score 3-1 at 9:24 of the period. It was Rau’s second unanswered goal for the visitors, with both of his strikes coming while Minnesota was on the power play.
UNO’s penalty-killing units have been the Mavericks’ pride and joy this season, coming into Saturday’s game at the top of that statistical category in the WCHA. The Gophers — and especially Rau — had little trouble in finding the net while having the numerical advantage.
“We got a little opportunistic, so that was good,” Lucia said about his team’s power play units. “Our guys executed well, and (the power-play goals) are what we had to have, so I give our guys a lot of credit.
“He’s obviously a very talented player, and he’s got a bright future,” Lucia went on to say about Rau. “Kyle Rau has a history of scoring big-time goals.”
UNO was later gifted a way back into the game during Saturday’s third period, with a Gophers defensive error leading to a short-handed breakaway goal for Mavericks forward Matt White.
Patterson shut the door after that, though. The senior keeper ended the night with 27 saves.
For his team’s part, Blais thought that, despite the setback, in terms of the game’s result, his team put in a solid performance against one of the best teams in the country.
“It was a great hockey game,” Blais said. “Obviously when you’re down 3-1 and you’re pressing, I don’t think we were relaxed at all. It was another game where we worked hard, but Minnesota’s a good hockey team and they deserved the win, but I thought we played well.”
That they did, but UNO couldn’t stop Minnesota from continuing its pursuit of the WCHA regular season title.
There’s still one week left before the Gophers get their chance to win the MacNaughton Cup. However, with Minnesota’s senior class having never won that trophy, a WCHA Final Five game or an NCAA tournament game, Rau said that it’s up to the team to send its seniors out on a high.
“Our leaders are huge, and we just want to (win) for them and send them out on a good note. They’ve done a lot for Gophers hockey, and they deserve to have something to show for it.”
If Minnesota has its way, it will be able to hoist the seniors’ first bit of major college hockey silverware at home next weekend against Wisconsin. UNO is also at home in the final week of the regular season, with the Mavericks welcoming No. 9 Denver to CenturyLink Center for a two-game set.