Minn. splits series with Mavericks

Friday wins continue to elude the Gophers so far this season.

Max Sanders

For a team wrought with inconsistency and struggling to find an identity, one continuing trend is starting to emerge for the Gophers menâÄôs hockey team: It simply cannot win on Fridays. For the second weekend in a row, Minnesota split a two-game series when it most needed a sweep; this time against a conference opponent. The Gophers (6-9-1 overall, 4-7-1 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) had their first home-and-home series of the season against Minnesota State-Mankato following a weekend where the Gophers were shut out in a 6-0 loss to Michigan on Friday, only to respond with a 2-1 victory over then-No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday. This weekend, Minnesota started strong in the series opener, scoring eight minutes into the first period. After Cade Fairchild won the battle for the puck on the boards, he found Jake Hansen streaking down the slot, and Hansen promptly fired a wrist shot past Mankato goalie Austin Lee for the first goal of the night. As nearly all Friday-night games have gone this year, the Gophers lead was short lived and a distant memory come the final buzzer. The Mavericks scored the equalizer with five minutes remaining in the first period on a power play. Mankato held a 5-1 advantage in power-play opportunities and converted its first chance of the game when the MavericksâÄô Zach Harrison fired a shot on net, and Jerad Stewart was there for the put-back past Gophers goalie Kent Patterson . Mankato dominated play for the remainder of the night en route to a 3-1 win. Perhaps no statistic was more revealing of the MavericksâÄô dominance than shots on goal, in which they held a 42-26 advantage over the Gophers. After the game, an air of frustration seeped out of the locker room, and before a question could be asked, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia addressed the performance with one word, âÄúDisappointed.âÄù As to what he said to his team following its fifth loss in six games? âÄúWhat did I leave them with? Some of my true feelings, but IâÄôm not going to share them with you,âÄù Lucia said. What he did share was the frustration and disappointment of a team that is now 1-6 on Fridays and just 3-6 at Mariucci Arena. âÄúNo question, we have not played well at home,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúSitting with a 3-6 record at home, we should all be embarrassed by that.âÄù Minnesota showed no sense of urgency against a Mavericks team (7-8-1, 5-8-1) that sat two points ahead of the Gophers in the WCHA standings heading into the weekend, and it was that lack of urgency that had Lucia most upset after the game. âÄúWeâÄôre not a good enough group not to play with urgency,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWhy that is, is perplexing. IâÄôve been doing this a long time, and we have to find some solutions to come out and play from start to finish from Friday when the puck drops to Saturday when the horn blows, and thatâÄôs not been easy the last couple weeks.âÄù Facing a must-win Saturday in Mankato, MinnesotaâÄôs freshmen got the Gophers scoring early and often. After missing nine games with a broken jaw, Nick Leddy scored in his second game back when he fired a shot from just inside the blue line six minutes into the first period. The goal gave the Gophers the early 1-0 lead and was the first goal of the freshmanâÄôs career at Minnesota. Another freshman would join Leddy as a first-time scorer just two minutes later. Following a takeaway, Josh Birkholz started a three-on-two fast break and fired a shot from just outside the left faceoff circle that got past the glove hand of Lee for the score. Birkholz wasted little time adding to his total, as he scored his second goal of the first period on a highlight-reel move, dodging three Mavericks defenders before shooting a backhander that went high past LeeâÄôs glove for the goal. The Gophers nearly squandered a 3-0 lead, as a MavericksâÄô Tyler Pitlick goal late in the first and halfway through the second cut the lead to 1. Unlike Friday, Minnesota did not let another lead slip away. The Gophers broke the game open in the third period, scoring three goals including Taylor MatsonâÄôs first of the season, giving Minnesota the 6-2 win. For a game in which Lucia said his playersâÄô pride was at stake, the coach was left wondering where the effort his team showed Saturday was just one night earlier. âÄúWe did a lot of good things tonight, but we have to learn to do them night in and night out,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôre not a flash-and-dash type of team, but I think weâÄôre good enough if weâÄôll work and compete, that we can play with anybody.âÄù With the win, the Gophers improve to 4-2-1 on Saturdays. The key for Lucia is translating the success his squad experiences on Saturdays to both nights. âÄúItâÄôs rewarding and frustrating, this group,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúItâÄôs rewarding when you show them and talk to them on a Saturday, and they come back and play, but itâÄôs frustrating to come out and play like we did Friday night, not give ourselves a chance.âÄù Minnesota moved up to eighth place in the WCHA standings after the split but are still six points out of third place and nine points back of first. They will head to Houghton, Mich., to play last-place Michigan Tech in a two-game series beginning next Friday at 6 p.m.