Power play life and death for Gophers

Ryan Schuster

Before Saturday night’s game against St. Cloud State at Mariucci Arena, the Gophers held a players-only meeting where they decided it was time for them to stop losing points in the WCHA standings.
The night before at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, the Gophers had been thoroughly dominated in a 5-2 loss to the league-leading Huskies. Minnesota was outhustled, outmuscled and outplayed on special teams in the disconcerting loss.
“I think we were pretty much embarrassed by the way things turned out (Friday) night for us,” sophomore center Reggie Berg said. “We played horrible, we played real sloppy, and we played on our heels. We all took exception to that and wanted to come out (Saturday) and prove that we are really the better team in the WCHA.”
Minnesota did just that by turning the tables on St. Cloud State and salvaging a 6-4 victory Saturday night at Mariucci to earn their seventh series split of the season.
Casey Hankinson’s power play goal only two minutes into the first period set the tone for the Gophers’ convincing victory. It was the power play that had led to Minnesota’s downfall Friday, and also their Saturday resurrection.
Despite entering this weekend’s series leading the WCHA in power-play and penalty-killing efficiency, the Gophers have struggled lately on special teams. Minnesota came into Saturday night’s game with only two goals in their previous 18 power play opportunities. During the same stretch, the team was 1-2 with an overtime victory over Denver and consecutive 5-2 losses to Denver and St. Cloud State.
“Our power play was a little better,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said after Saturday night’s victory. “It was snappier and that certainly changed the game.”
The Gophers scored on just one of 15 power play chances in their first three meetings of the season with St. Cloud State, including a 1-for-10 performance on the road Friday night at St. Cloud. They even failed to score on a two-man advantage that they held Friday for over a minute of the second period. Minnesota was equally ineffective that night on defense, as they also surrendered a season-high three power-play goals.
The Gophers held the Huskies to one power-play goal in five chances on Saturday night, however, while tallying three of their own. Minnesota capitalized on three of six power-play opportunities on goals by Hankinson, Ben Clymer and Ryan Kraft.
“Our power play struggled a lot (Friday) night,” Kraft said. “But (Saturday) we got a couple of goals. I think when you score on your first couple of chances on the power play, you get that little extra confidence and it just kind of grows from there.”
The disparity of the Gophers’ power-play efficiency in their two weekend games against St. Cloud State mirrors the rest of Minnesota’s season. In the team’s 16 victories this season it has scored on 34 percent of its power-play opportunities. However, in the Gophers eight losses, they have capitalized on only 6 percent.
Last year’s power play unit finished second in the WCHA to Colorado College, connecting on 26 percent of its chances.
Although Minnesota’s overall power-play percentage this season (24 percent) is almost identical to last year’s, the unit has been much more inconsistent this year. The Gophers’ power play statistics have been inflated by strong performances in several victories this season. Five of the team’s 25 power-play goals came in the Alaska-Anchorage series, one of only three sweeps the Gophers have had this year.
Minnesota responded to a physical beating on Friday with a much improved effort at home on Saturday. It finished checks and played with more confidence and enthusiasm. The more aggressive play of the Gophers also transferred into more shots and better scoring opportunities on both the power play and even strength chances.
“Tonight we just wanted to get a little more intensity when we were out there on the power play and take some more shots,” Kraft said after Saturday night’s win over the Huskies. “Luckily things went well and we got some goals off them.”