DULUTH — In a weekend full of contrasts, none was more telling than what happened with only 1:37 to play in Saturday’s men’s hockey game.
Dave Spehar, long the object of Minnesota-Duluth fans’ hate, missed Saturday’s game with an ankle injury. Frustrated by not having their favorite player to taunt and a Duluth losing streak about to hit four games, the home crowd showed its disgust.
With snack products.
And as nearly 100 hot dogs meant to mock Spehar covered center ice at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Gophers captain Nate Miller used his stick to help arena employees clean the ice.
It was just another job for the blue-collar Miller, who scored two goals and led Minnesota to a 4-1 win Saturday and a sweep of the Bulldogs.
Miller was haunted by a series two years ago, when Minnesota went to Duluth for a best-of-three WCHA playoff series and lost. Back then, it was Duluth who outworked the Gophers, climbing back from a four-goal deficit in the third to beat Minnesota in overtime.
“It was a huge win for us on the road,” Miller said Saturday. “We showed a lot of character, and we did what we had to do to win.
“That’s the sign of a team that can go places.”
While how far Minnesota can go this season remains to be seen, the Gophers did take a huge step toward playoff contention by moving within striking distance of fifth place and home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
And if the Gophers do secure home ice, it will be because of the work ethic of players like Miller. Besides his two goals Saturday, he helped win the game with his tenacious forechecking and backchecking.
All that hard work provided a respite for Minnesota goalie Adam Hauser, who only had to make 18 saves for the victory.
Minnesota also took a huge step by taking care of business and sweeping a series it had to have. After losing at home last Saturday to Minnesota State, the Gophers set out to prove they weren’t a team that folds down the stretch.
“After last Saturday our pride was hurt,” Miller said. “The coaches got on us this week in practice, telling us if we were going to do something this year, we had to do it now.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia echoed Miller’s sentiments.
“We had to take care of business this weekend,” Lucia said. “We just couldn’t afford to waste any more opportunities, and it felt good.”
Minnesota never trailed Saturday, but Duluth was within striking distance until Miller took a pass up the far side and blasted a slapshot past goaltender Brant Nicklin late in the third.
The Gophers jumped out to an early lead after Miller buried his first of the night on the power play. But Duluth owned the first 10 minutes of the second period. After Matt DeMarchi took an ill-advised double minor at 7:23, the Bulldogs seemed poised to tie the game.
Instead, they turned the puck over in their defensive zone. John Pohl took the loose puck hard to the net and was stopped by Nicklin. Pohl was then checked into Nicklin and Aaron Miscovich fired the rebound into an empty cage to stretch Minnesota’s lead to two goals.
From there, Miller and Minnesota outworked the Bulldogs down the stretch to improve their record to 14-12-2 (10-8-2 WCHA), the first time the Gophers have been two games over .500 all year.
Lucia challenged his team to take another step forward by sweeping the Bulldogs after Minnesota escaped with a 3-2 win Friday.
Minnesota was outplayed at times, but still managed a win when Duluth’s faceoff coverage broke down late in the game.
Off a draw in the Bulldog end, a loose puck trickled to Minnesota’s Nick Anthony. When both defensemen moved to Anthony he slid the puck to Stuart Senden, who beat Nicklin top shelf.
“They got the best of us in the third,” Lucia said Friday night. “They really moved the puck well, especially on the power play. They just blew some faceoff coverage and Senden beat (Nicklin) clean. Nicklin didn’t have a chance.”
Nicklin isn’t the only Bulldog who hasn’t had a chance against Minnesota lately. Since the playoff loss, the Gophers and goaltender Adam Hauser are 7-0-1 against Duluth.
“It was a huge sweep for us this weekend, because they are always fired up to play us up here,” Miller said. “It’s also huge because it puts us in the driver’s seat a little bit. We control our own destiny at this point.”
Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]