Comeback kids stun Denver with pair of rallies at home

Adam Fink

Thirty seconds remained Saturday night at Mariucci Arena when Minnesota’s men’s hockey coach Don Lucia started clapping on the bench.

As the clock wound down on the seventh-ranked Gophers’ 8-5 win over No. 12 Denver, Lucia had plenty to cheer about.

Both Friday and Saturday night, Minnesota trailed by three goals due to defensive lapses, an ineffective offense and a lack of intensity.

But in both games – including Friday’s 3-3 tie – a switch was thrown and the Gophers came to life.

“This gives us confidence,” said first-year student Tyler Hirsch, who scored his second goal Saturday night midway through the second period to close the deficit to 4-3. “We can never fold; this is a dangerous team.”

After earning three points against Denver, Minnesota (19-8-8, 14-6-6 WCHA) clinched home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs set to begin March 14.

The Gophers’ 34 points also solidifies their position at third place in the conference. If fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth (30 points) sweeps Michigan Tech, and St. Cloud State – the Gophers’ next opponent – sweeps Minnesota this weekend, the Bulldogs would claim third.

Minnesota would move to second if it swept the Huskies. Minnesota State-Mankato is three points ahead of Minnesota but has completed its regular season schedule.

“Our No. 1 goal was home ice,” Lucia said. “Now it’s a top-three finish.”

The Gophers needed a late surge in both games versus Denver to put themselves in position for one of the top conference spots.

On Saturday, Minnesota trailed 4-1 midway through the second period. But Hirsch started a furious comeback with his power-play goal at 12:26.

Just over four minutes – and four goals – later, the Gophers claimed a 5-4 lead they would never relinquish and brought the crowd of 10,015 to their feet in approval.

Sophomore Barry Tallackson added two goals to clinch the victory and lead to an early exit for All-American goaltender Wade Dubielewicz.

“We didn’t play a complete game,” said Denver’s Luke Fulghum, who tallied a hat trick by 4:32 of the second period.

If Fulghum needed any proof of Denver’s inconsistency, the sophomore only needed to look at Friday’s game.

Denver (20-10-6, 11-9-6) built a 3-0 lead by out-hustling Minnesota, winning the one-on-one battles and minimizing mental errors.

But the momentum changed when Grant Potulny scored at 7:36 of the final stanza. First-year Andy Sertich added a goal four minutes later.

Potulny netted the game-tying goal with 1:05 left as Minnesota had two extra players due to a power play and pulling goaltender Travis Weber, who started consecutive games for the first time since mid-January.

“We stole a point,” Potulny said. “I can’t say enough about our ability to come back.”

While only two games remain before the postseason, Lucia doesn’t want the team to find itself in early, large holes.

But knowing the team has the talent to mount a comeback is an intangible many successful teams contain – and the Gophers show they possess.

“We are young and it shows out there,” Lucia said. “(But) we are finding ways to win.”