Gophers sweep St. Cloud for conference lead

David La

Minnesota’s Jordan Leopold was one of four players taxed with holding the storm door shut while St. Cloud State attackers whistled and howled through the Gophers zone.
The junior defenseman dove around with abandon, trying desperately to block a shot or clear the puck as the clock wound toward zero.
In an exhilarating finale to an otherwise lackluster series, Minnesota staved off the Huskies’ six-to-four man advantage in the final 30 seconds of Saturday nights game, preserving the sweep.
“I kept thinking, `Puck, stay out of the net,'” Leopold said. “We played fatigued and we weren’t doing the little things. St. Cloud didn’t have their top game either. Both teams are in the top of the league, but it looked more like a game between bottom-ranked teams.”
Physically tired and emotionally sapped after grueling battles with Wisconsin and North Dakota, the undermanned Gophers ran on fumes throughout the weekend.
With the wins, Minnesota took over and solidified sole possession of first place in the conference, one point ahead of North Dakota.
On Saturday, Erik Westrum scored a shorthanded goal midway through the third period, giving the Gophers a 3-0 lead. Though ahead at home, coach Don Lucia was nervous.
“Even though we played with a lead, I never felt comfortable tonight,” Lucia said. “You could see that it was a struggle for us. We made it an adventure, that’s for sure.”
St. Cloud’s Mark Hartigan scored a power-play goal just over one minute later, putting the Huskies on the board for the first time in the last 109 minutes of action.
Minnesota’s Jeff Taffe answered with a power-play tally of his own, but St. Cloud wasn’t finished.
Derek Eastman scored another power-play goal, followed by Hartigan’s second score of the evening — the fifth goal of the period in just over nine minutes — cutting the Gophers lead to 4-3.
With one minute remaining, a questionable penalty for hitting after the whistle was assessed to Westrum. At the 30-second mark, the Huskies pulled goaltender Jake Moreland, providing a six to four advantage which Minnesota weathered.
“I was very pleased with our team,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. “Did they quit when they were down 3-0? No. Did they quit when they were down 4-1? No. Too many things conspired against us this weekend, but they played hard. The boys showed up.”
Friday’s game, a 2-0 Gophers win, mirrored the bland surroundings of St. Cloud’s National Hockey Center.
Minnesota and the Huskies came in as the first and fourth ranked scoring teams in the WCHA, respectively.
But marred by 22 penalties and solid defensive play, the two potent offenses trudged through a game as lifeless and mundane as the concrete and steel architecture of the arena.
“There was a bad flow to the game tonight,” the Gophers Troy Riddle said. “A lot of whistles, a lot of penalties. Its one of those games where you have to hack it out and find a way.”
Riddle got just enough of a bouncing puck to beat goalie Scott Meyer in the second period, giving Minnesota a 1-0 lead and keeping the home crowd in a lull.
A mere 38-seconds into the third period, Johnny Pohl cashed in on a deflection off Meyer’s shoulder, renewing the Gophers momentum.
From there, Minnesota turned stifling. St. Cloud State managed only six shots on goal, as the Gophers kept one forward in a defensive mode.
“It was a good game for us because it was a low energy game,” Lucia said. “But it was a boring hockey game, it probably wasn’t a great game for the fans.”
Turning away all 25 of the Huskies shots was a plus for goaltender Adam Hauser as well.
Hauser came under fire a week ago against North Dakota, giving up 12 goals in a loss and tie.
“The confidence factor goes back up a little bit,” Hauser said. “Twelve goals is tough to take. But its nice to bounce back and beat St. Cloud in their own building.”
After his goal on Friday, the usually electric Riddle simply raised his arms, looked skyward, and slowly coasted into the boards.
From this first goal to the frenzied final seconds on Saturday, the spent Gophers are just pleased to have the points.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]