Friday night lights to Saturday night fever

The Gophers’ ailing 3-2 loss Saturday left them two points shy of being satisfied.

Ben Goessling

This time, there were no musings about a lack of effort, no wondering aloud as to which players were mentally ready to go.

But Minnesota’s men’s hockey team got two points against Minnesota-Duluth on a weekend in which only four would do.

So in what has become something of a January ritual, the Gophers must contend with more questions – this time before perhaps the biggest series of the season.

The Gophers turned in a rousing 4-3 win over the Bulldogs on Friday in front of 10,149 fans at Mariucci Arena but followed it up with a 3-2 loss Saturday that, in reality, probably wasn’t that close.

And after the Gophers ended the weekend on a sour note and lost for the fifth time in six home games, everyone became a philosopher.

Maybe Minnesota isn’t as good as everyone thought it was during a run to the top of the national polls in November.

Or, rather, maybe its exactly the team it was supposed to be.

“Some of (the problem) is youth,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We’re not going to be a veteran team every year.”

Minnesota (19-10-0, 12-8-0 WCHA) might never have looked as young as it did Saturday, when it absorbed a physical pounding from a senior-laden Minnesota-Duluth team that controlled play from the start and choked off every Minnesota comeback attempt.

The Bulldogs fired 45 shots at goaltender Kellen Briggs while holding the Gophers to just six in the third period and only 16 in five-on-five situations.

Every time a Minnesota forward got his hands on the puck, there was a Minnesota-Duluth (11-12-5, 9-10-3) backchecker in his face, cutting off passing lanes and winning the physical battles Minnesota had controlled Friday.

“Like coach told us, that’s as close to playoff hockey as we’re going to get,” forward Evan Kaufmann said. “We’re still learning how to play in tight games like that.”

On Friday, No. 7 Minnesota looked like a team that knew how to win a physical game, throwing its collective weight around thanks to the return of freshman defenseman Nate Hagemo.

Hagemo, who missed the Gophers’ last five games with a shoulder injury, registered a goal and an assist in his return. But, more importantly, he provided the defensive backbone Minnesota had been missing during last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Michigan Tech.

His vintage moment came with four seconds left, when he tied up a Bulldogs forward near the Gophers net as the puck skipped away and time ran out on the Bulldogs’ comeback attempt.

“I was thinking I would be a little sluggish at the start, and I took a couple short shifts to get back into it,” Hagemo said. “But I played how I had been playing.”

Minnesota took a 4-1 lead thanks to three goals in the second period. Hagemo’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, came on a power play after Bulldogs defenseman Tim Hambly was called for interference when he collided with Tyler Hirsch.

Hambly was on course to level Hirsch, but when Hirsch stepped out of the way at the last moment, Hambly grazed him with a hip check and fell over.

“I guess you can’t hit anymore in this league. That was a mystery to me,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “I thought it was a good step-up by a defenseman. What is he supposed to do?”

On Saturday, however, it was the Gophers who were asking that question.

With a road trip to third-ranked Wisconsin representing Minnesota’s last chance to assert itself before the postseason, Minnesota left Mariucci Arena Saturday with only half the answers it needed.

“I think we’ve played better the last couple games. We’ve played harder, we’ve been into the games more,” Lucia said. “But tonight, we got beat by a better team.”