Dust off the brooms: U earns sweep

aron Kirscht

The rest of his teammates clustered around the maroon “M” at center ice in preparation for the traditional post-sweep salute, but the Gophers’ Steve DeBus was deep in conversation near the Mariucci Arena boards.
A few more seconds of waiting wouldn’t hurt. Minnesota’s first sweep of the season came later than expected, but was sweet nonetheless.
The Gophers beat upstart Mankato State 6-2 on Friday and shut the Mavericks out of the weekend win column with a 4-3 victory on Saturday.
“Anytime you’re having a year like ours,” Gophers forward Reggie Berg said, “any win is a good win. We’ve been able to score some goals, and it feels like maybe we’re turning the corner now.”
Minnesota broke the longest losing streak in the program’s history — nine games — a week before against Brown, but the Mankato State sweep gave the Gophers wins in three of their last four games.
And for the first time this season, Minnesota showed the ability to score in bunches while preventing an opponent from doing the same, a feat made more impressive by the fact that the Gophers have been short-staffed by injuries to a handful of frontline players.
Defensemen Ben Clymer (shoulder) and Jason Godbout (elbow) underwent surgery earlier this season. Clymer is on the shelf until next season, while Godbout could return early next month. Senior co-captain Ryan Kraft’s left hand got in the way of a flying puck against St. Cloud State Dec. 19; the break could sideline him for another two weeks. Defenseman Bill Kohn didn’t play this weekend, the victim of a nasty check in the Northeastern game Dec. 28 that resulted in a concussion, and Cory Miller aggravated a previous knee injury on Friday.
That left the Gophers with only nine forwards and five defensemen — one of whom, Erik Westrum, started the season as a forward — in uniform.
For a while on Friday, it looked as though Minnesota would begin another losing streak, as the Mavericks took a 2-1 lead early in the second period. But the Gophers reeled off three goals in a 92-second span midway through the second period.
That signaled a possible Minnesota recovery — the Gophers had scored more than two goals only twice during their nine-game losing streak. Mankato State coach Don Brose likened the Gophers to “sleeping giants” — the kind that wake up in a bad mood.
“They’ve had some difficult times,” Brose said, “but they turned our defense around and got some goals. They really took advantage of the switch in momentum and got things going their way.”
Friday starter DeBus played one of his strongest games of the season, but gave way to backup Erik Day the following night.
The Mavericks beat Day for a goal early in the first period, but again the Gophers scored a pair of quick goals — both on the power play, less than a minute apart — to regain the lead and the all-important momentum.
Rarely this season has Minnesota fought through adversity the way it did over the weekend. Injuries, lead changes and sloppy play slowed the Gophers at times, but didn’t overtake them as in the previous month.
“I mean no disrespect to Mankato State,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said, “but we had to make a stand. I don’t care if we have 10 players or 12 players or 15 players, we’ve gotta get it done.”
Woog was asked if the sweep and the goal-scoring glut got a monkey off the team’s back.
“I wouldn’t say it was a big monkey,” Woog said. “It’s just that we need to start winning some games.
“I’m happy for our guys, because they finally got a reward for playing hard. We’ve played better than this in some of the games we lost.”
Regardless of the opponents to come, a familiar theme for the rest of the Gophers season will be “must-win.” Minnesota (7-13 overall, 3-6 in the WCHA) is 17 points behind league-leading St. Cloud State and five points out of fifth place, the benchmark it must reach to host a first-round playoff series.
If this is indeed the beginning of a turnaround in the Gophers’ abysmal season to date, it came at the right time. After being off next weekend, Minnesota’s next two series are at home against eighth-place Denver and sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth. The team then travels to fifth-place Michigan Tech to close out the month.
“It’s pretty basic,” said junior Wyatt Smith, who continued his wicked scoring tear over the weekend with two goals and four assists. “The season is half over, but a lot of things can happen. I’ve seen some pretty strange things happen, especially last year when we ended up tying for the championship.
“We’re just going to go out and have fun and make things turn around for us.”
SCORING SUMMARIES

FRIDAY’S GAME
Mankato State 1 1 0 — 2
Gophers 1 3 2 — 6
FIRST PERIOD:
Minn — Spehar (Hankinson, Smith), PPG 10:04. MSU — Rintoul (Christopherson, Zacharias), 13:42.
SECOND PERIOD:
MSU — Rooney (Wolfe, Holoien), 3:51. Minn — Hankinson (Smith, Mills), PPG 8:09. Minn — Smith (unassisted), 8:35. Minn — Anderson (Mills), 9:41.
THIRD PERIOD:
Minn — Westrum (Leimbek, Lyons), 2:36.

SATURDAY’S GAME
Mankato State 1 1 1 — 3
Gophers 2 2 0 — 4
FIRST PERIOD:
MSU — Schrick (Deis, George), 3:20. Minn — Hankinson (Mills, Smith), PPG 11:19. Minn — Spehar (Smith, Mills), PPG 12:14.
SECOND PERIOD:
Minn — Smith (Abrahamson), SHG 1:01. MSU — Fox (Krug, Wolfe), PPG 5:08. Minn — Pagel (Anderson, Berg), 7:22.
THIRD PERIOD:
MSU — White (George), 4:47.