MINNEAPOLIS — Tied 1-1 going into the third, Minnesota exploded for four goals, led by Zach Budish, who had two assists and a goal in the third to go with a goal in the second.
“I just like the way they played,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “I thought it was a much better game on both sides tonight than last night. There was more energy in the game. From the start, our guys came out with the effort you have to have.”
For the second night in a row, Denver had prevented Minnesota from recording single shot on net during the power play, but at 9:52, Nick Bjugstad took the Gophers first power-play shot on a one-timer from the left circle, scoring the critical go-ahead goal, which proved to be the game-winner.
“It was obviously timely,” said Lucia. “He made a nice play. We finally got it in the zone and got it set up, and Bjugstad made a nice play.”
“I was telling the guys I was going to lose my mind if we didn’t score,” said Erik Haula, who fed Bjugstad.
“Thank God we got it in,” said Bjugstad. “Erik made a great pass to me. I was kinda on one knee. I was taking the shot. I just dropped down to two knees. A dramatic celebration, I was just happy it went in.”
Justin Holl put Minnesota up 3-1 at 12:24 on a shot from 40 feet out that hit the far upper corner. Holl had just come off the bench when the puck was dumped in Denver’s zone. Travis Boyd beat the defender to the puck and found the Holl driving up the lane, and Holl fired a quick snap shot over the glove of Denver goalie Sam Brittain.
“Justin jumped over the boards, a timely change; he made a nice shot,” said Lucia.
“We played a great 60-minute game overall,” said Haula. “Everyone in the lineup contributed. A great goal by Justin Holl, who usually doesn’t score.”
The wheels came off the bus when Sam Warning stole a puck from a Denver defender at the blue line and went in on a breakaway, lifting a backhander over Brittain. What was a close game turned into a lopsided affair.
The win, coupled with St. Cloud State’s loss, brought Minnesota within two points of first with two games to play.
“The guys knew that we are not that far out of first, but there are still teams in the rear view mirror,” said Lucia.
A very critical momentum change happened in the second when Denver appeared to take a 2-0 lead on a power-play goal by Ty Loney. The play was reviewed for a long time and the goal was overturned because Loney played the puck with a high stick.
At 9:03, Budish scored a goal that was also closely reviewed. The Gophers were swarming the net and Brittain was down in the crease, along with a defenseman and Sam Warning. The puck clearly came out of the crease, and Budish kicked the puck back into the crease intentionally before taking the shot that went in. Warning was still in the crease the whole time, but was not impeding Brittain.
The remainder of the period was anything but boring.
Adam Wilcox stopped Nick Shore on a short-handed breakaway. Brittain was equal to the challenge, stopping Kyle Rau on a short-handed rush. It felt like playoff hockey between two heavyweights.
“I thought tonight was like a playoff; from start to finish it was hard fought,” said Lucia. “I thought we got to the net harder, much more desire. It paid some dividends for us tonight.”
Denver opened the scoring on a power-play goal by Scott Mayfield at 3:34. It was a transition goal off a Gophers’ short-handed rush where Chris Knowlton hit Mayfield entering the Gophers zone with an outlet pass. Mayfield blew around the defenseman and drove to the net, lifting a backhand over Wilcox.
Despite trailing, Minnesota controlled much of the tempo and play of the first. They attempted 32 shots, compared to 18 for the Pioneers, creating quality time of possession in the offensive zone.
Next weekend, Denver hosts Alaska-Anchorage while Minnesota travels to Bemidji State.