Gophers continue to roll, sweep Mavericks on the road

by Lou Raguse

MANKATO, Minn. – Midway through the third period of the Minnesota men’s hockey team’s victory against Minnesota State-Mankato on Saturday, forward Thomas Vanek was looking for his third assist of the game.

After setting up teammate Jake Fleming for a goal in front of the net, Vanek instead found his third goal of the evening, hammering the puck home while sprawled out on top of Mavericks goaltender Jon Volp.

After referees swept away a cap thrown on the ice by a Gophers fan celebrating Vanek’s hat trick, Minnesota added two goals to skate away with a 10-3 victory, a sweep on the road and four crucial league points.

With the sweep, No. 7 Minnesota (13-8-3, 8-7-1 WCHA) maintained the momentum it has carried by going undefeated since Dec. 6 against Alaska-Anchorage. The young and injury-ridden Mavericks (4-14-4, 3-10-3) felt the brunt end of the Gophers’ momentum like a steer that stumbled onto the train tracks.

“As much fun as it is to win 10-3, I feel bad because I’ve been on the other side, and it’s no fun for Mankato,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “The last thing you want to do is try and run up the score, but our guys continued to play to the buzzer.”

Despite the scoring disparity between both teams, early in the second period Mavericks freshman Travis Morin cut Minnesota’s lead to 2-1 on a top-shelf goal.

Vanek responded with a score during 4-on-4 play and defenseman Keith Ballard nailed a power-play slap shot to put the Gophers back on top by three.

Mankato’s slight offensive surge in the second period Saturday was the best it could do in the series as the Mavericks’ 14 second-period shots nearly matched their game total from Friday night’s 6-0 loss to the Gophers.

“Even though the score may not indicate it, I thought Mankato was sharper (Saturday) too,” Lucia said.

After Saturday’s game, Lucia was pleased with his top-end players’ performances. Following Vanek’s three-goal, two-assist effort was Ballard, who opened up the scoring with an unassisted goal after snatching a Mankato pass at the blue line.

“You start to work a little harder and you start to get more breaks,” Ballard said. “Coaches always talk about it, but we’re starting to see it more – we’re playing a lot harder offensively and defensively. You kind of notice the breaks we get.”

Not to be overshadowed by Minnesota’s offensive outpouring in the series was goaltender Kellen Briggs.

After earning WCHA rookie of the week honors for his two victories against Colorado College Jan. 9-10, Briggs carried his solid play into Mankato. The freshman stopped 18 shots for a shutout Friday and saved 22 of 24 before being replaced by Justin Johnson in Saturday’s blowout.

Monday, Briggs was again named the conference’s rookie of the week while Vanek notched player of the week honors.

Mavericks senior Shane Joseph, one of the nation’s top players, was unable to score all weekend as

Briggs set Minnesota’s rookie record with his fourth shutout this season and moved into a second-place tie for all-time season shutouts.

At one point in Friday’s game, Briggs skated nearly to the top of the circle in traffic to clear the puck.

“(Jon) Waibel said that if I kept going, we could have had a two-on-one going the other way,” Briggs joked.

Things were glummer in the Mavericks’ locker room after each game. Forward David Backes summed up his teammates’ thoughts:

“We just want to put this weekend behind us,” he said.