Gophers’ seniors lead the way to sweep of Arizona State

Minnesota rode a three-goal first period to 5-2 victory.

Junior Ryan Zuhlsdorf skates away from the Gophers' goal during the game against Arizona State on Friday, March 1 at 3M at Mariucci Arena. 

Jack Rodgers

Junior Ryan Zuhlsdorf skates away from the Gophers’ goal during the game against Arizona State on Friday, March 1 at 3M at Mariucci Arena. 

Nick Jungheim

While the rest of the Big Ten had conference games on Saturday, the Gophers had one last opportunity to earn a victory against a ranked opponent on senior night.  

Minnesota (16-15-4, 11-10-3-0 Big Ten) got a strong showing from its seniors in its final regular season game.  Thanks largely to a fast start to begin the game, the Gophers defeated No. 12 Arizona State (21-12-1) 5-2.

“Solid weekend for us, real solid,” said head coach Bob Motzko.  “Great for our seniors, a couple of them scoring, Eric [Schierhorn] in the net. Very solid weekend.”

Picking up right where they left off after Friday’s 5-1 victory, the Gophers controlled the first period of play.  Motzko started all seniors, sending Brent Gates Jr., Tommy Novak, Jack Ramsey, Jack Sadek and Tyler Sheehy, out for the opening face-off with Eric Schierhorn in goal.

With that group still on the ice, Ramsey put Minnesota in front just 42 seconds into the game, scoring off assists from Gates and Sadek.  For the seniors, it was a storybook way to begin their last regular season game in front of the home fans.

“Picture-perfect,” Ramsey said. “Start six seniors and to have that happen. I was thinking about it before the game when [Motzko] told us the starting lineup, but I didn’t imagine it being myself being out there with those guys.”

The Gophers’ domination of the opening 20 minutes didn’t stop there. Another senior, Darian Romanko, redirected a shot from Sadek that found the back of the net at the 10:02 mark. Sophomore Sampo Ranta added another score three minutes later.  Minnesota headed into the first intermission with a 3-0 lead and a 15-3 advantage in shots on goal.

Just over a minute into the second period, sophomore Brannon McManus scored to give the Gophers a 4-0 lead.  On the play, Arizona State sophomore Jacob Wilson received a game-misconduct for checking Ranta above the neck. Despite being given a five-minute major, Minnesota didn’t score again until the third period. Instead, Arizona State scored a short-handed goal. The Sun Devils added another score at the 13:32 mark to cut the Gophers’ lead to 4-2. 

The third period featured a long stretch of free-flowing hockey that extended for 6:30 without a stoppage.  Despite the back-and-forth play, Minnesota couldn’t breakthrough again until 2:45 remaining in the game.  

Then, on the penalty kill for the only time of the night, Minnesota got three consecutive excellent opportunities on short-handed breakaways. After getting denied on the first two, junior Rem Pitlick put the game away with Minnesota’s fifth and final goal, clinching the sweep.

“Getting [a sweep] on the last weekend is big for us,” Romanko said. “We have that little edge going into the playoffs. We’re not down on ourselves going into next week.  I think we got the ball rolling and we’re going to keep rolling.”

With the victory, Minnesota earned their first sweep at home this season. The Gophers, who have struggled with consistency, are peaking at the right time as they head into the postseason. They have won five of their last six, including three straight over ranked opponents.

“We feel good,” Ramsey said. “We’re playing the right way. I think everyone’s really buying in to coach’s system right now and it’s showing on the ice.”

Minnesota will host a first-round, best-of-three series to begin the Big Ten tournament next weekend, beginning on Friday, March 8. For now, Motzko was glad his team secured a sweep in the seniors’ final home series.

“I’ll give group credit to the seniors,” Motzko said. “From day-one to today, they’ve been respectful, they’ve been respectful to a new coach.  They believe in getting better. Sometimes you get seniors who are looking beyond.  I think they have stayed focused with this team the entire year.  We kept getting better and it set us up for a big weekend.”