Split at Colorado earned after gut check Saturday afternoon

Adam Fink

Oon Saturday afternoon, the video session lasted 10 minutes instead of three. The strategy discussion lasted 45 minutes, instead of the normal 15.

And after every player on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team witnessed their miscues on tape, Don Lucia delivered the Gophers’ marching orders: finish checks, win the 5-on-5 battles and most important, do not turn the puck over.

As the Gophers mobbed each other moments after their 3-2 upset of top-ranked Colorado College on Saturday night, no one could take more pleasure in the win than Minnesota’s fourth-year coach.

Minnesota’s effort level increased dramatically after Friday’s 6-2 drubbing by the Tigers. The eighth-ranked Gophers (15-7-7, 10-5-5 WCHA) reduced their turnovers – Lucia counted 40 Friday night – received strong play from all four lines and came back from a deficit in the win.

Colorado College (22-3-5, 15-2-5) saw its unbeaten streak end at 11 as it suffered its third loss of the season. Minnesota improved to 16-0-4 in its last 19 WCHA series finales.

“They heard me,” Lucia said, referring to the longest Saturday meeting of the season. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance (Friday) night. The win was a total team effort and I couldn’t be happier.”

Saturday’s win highlighted just how good Minnesota can be.

The Gophers hustled, played smart with the puck and weren’t phased by playing from behind. Minnesota came out for the third period down 2-1.

But Thomas Vanek, on a cross-ice pass from Troy Riddle, scored in front of the net. The Gophers went on to dominate the final 20 minutes, out-shooting Colorado College 12-3 and controlling the tempo.

A mere eight minutes later, fourth-liner Jake Fleming faked out Tigers goaltender Curtis McElhinney with a cross-over to notch the game-winner at 8:24. For the first time in the weekend, the Gophers fans, among the 7,604 in attendance at the World Arena, were louder than the Tigers fans.

“It was huge,” Fleming said. “We needed to come back. It gave us

confidence. After that, we knew we had to hold them off for the rest of the way.”

Goaltender Justin Johnson, making his second start in the past three games, was up for the challenge. The sophomore made 18 saves, many of them with Tiger players around the net trying to create confusion.

But Johnson kept the high-powered Tigers – averaging a conference-leading 4.7 goals per game – at bay for most of the night with the help of his aggressive defense.

“We played hard out there and didn’t have really any breakdowns,” Johnson said.

“They turned it up a notch. They played like the desperate team,” Tigers coach Scott Owens said.

Just as Saturday showcased Minnesota’s capabilities, Friday’s blowout loss touted the opposite.

Colorado College scored 11 seconds into the game and with three seconds remaining in the first period.

The Tigers’ Brett Sterling tallied four goals, including two on breakaways. Minnesota was outscored 5-0 with equal numbers and lacked a consistent effort with each passing shift.

Gophers goalie Travis Weber saved 25 shots but was “hung out to dry,” according to Lucia, too many times.

Saturday’s effort has Lucia believing the Gophers can continue to build momentum. In addition, the win – along with second-place North Dakota losing Saturday and idle Minnesota State-Mankato – puts the Gophers only two points out of second place in the conference.

Struggling Wisconsin is on tap this weekend, and Lucia said the goal of earning home-ice in the WCHA tournament is still alive after a difficult series in Colorado.

“We have to keep winning games,” Lucia said. “As long as we give the effort we did in beating Colorado College, we will be fine.”