Home sweet home: 1st round advantage secured

by Lou Raguse

Things weren’t going Keith Ballard’s way for two periods Saturday.

One pass from Minnesota men’s hockey goaltender Kellen Briggs careened off Ballard’s stick, leading to a St. Cloud State goal.

Late in the second period, the Huskies came within one goal of the Gophers when Ballard’s stick broke while clearing the puck from the defensive zone. The puck made it as far as the blue line before the Huskies gained control and converted.

“I started laughing when the stick broke,” Ballard said. “Because, what can you do?”

But Ballard enjoyed the last laugh Saturday when he took a pass from Barry Tallackson in the third period and fired home the insurance goal in Minnesota’s 4-2 win over St. Cloud State.

The win completed the series sweep for the Gophers (22-13-3, 15-12-1 WCHA) over the Huskies (18-14-4, 12-12-4). The sweep means St. Cloud State will return to Mariucci Arena this weekend for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

And the Gophers players are looking forward to it.

“I wouldn’t mind playing St. Cloud five or six more times,” Ballard said. “It’s pretty intense. I think both teams wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Minnesota coach Don Lucia observed both games from the press box, wearing a neck brace because of surgery performed last Tuesday.

He communicated with the Minnesota bench through a radio, and assistant coach Bob Motzko joked that he sometimes turned down the volume in his earpiece to drown out the yelling.

But Lucia thought the players handled the change in stride, and he had plenty of praise for his assistants.

“Bob and Mike (Guentzel) did a good job,” Lucia said. “It’s nice to have veteran assistant coaches – that’s why I wasn’t worried at all. But it’s a whole different perspective from up top.”

Lucia likely wouldn’t complain about his view of Minnesota’s game-winning goal.

The goal came from Ryan Potulny – the first in his collegiate career after missing the last 29 games following surgery on his left knee.

Potulny called the coaches the night before and told them he would rather play the rest of the season than redshirt and get an extra year of eligibility.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Potulny said of his goal. “Just sitting around the locker room, it was tough sitting out and watching the other guys play. I just want to help this team any way I can.”

The Gophers, who are still slightly banged up, said they benefited from the spark of Potulny’s fresh legs. The coaches said they were happy with the performance of senior defenseman Joey Martin, who was playing in his eighth game of the season.

Despite losing its fifth straight game, St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl was also optimistic after Saturday’s game.

The 4-2 loss was a step up from Friday’s 7-4 loss for the Huskies, and Dahl is confident this weekend will be a different story.

“I love my job, I hate losing, but I can’t stand games like Friday,” Dahl said in reference to the Huskies’ poor defensive play. “(Saturday) was a much better effort.”