Ballard’s return sparks Gophers blueliners

Lou Raguse

Minnesota men’s hockey defenseman Keith Ballard sprawled out in front of the net early in the third period Saturday and took a second whack at the puck.

The second go-around forced the puck into the back of the net and gave the Gophers their final tally in a shutout victory over Michigan Tech.

“It was the one bright spot of the night for me,” Ballard said.

Maybe he was a little too hard on himself.

The assistant captain, who missed seven games prior to the weekend’s series with the Huskies, provided a spark both on the ice and in the locker room that the Gophers desperately needed to get on the winning track.

“He’s certainly enthusiastic to be back in the lineup,” coach Don Lucia said. “He brought that energy to the game, and he was ready to get up and play and help us create some offense.”

Ballard created plenty of offense, especially Friday night. Minnesota’s first goal came when Ballard kicked a telegraphed pass from a Michigan Tech player during the 4-on-4, and then zipped a pass over to Gino Guyer for a goal.

The blue-liner’s second assist of the night came in the third period when he took the puck along the boards, then found senior Troy Riddle at the net. Riddle shot and scored on his own rebound.

Michigan Tech rarely went a sequence without putting a body on Ballard, and Minnesota had a scare late in the third period Friday when the Huskies’ Desmet Taggart slashed Ballard’s left leg from behind.

Ballard went down, appearing to hold his knee. However, he felt the sting in his calf just below the knee and returned to the game before the power play’s end – just in time for Mike Vannelli’s first career goal.

“I probably had it coming,” Ballard said of the slash. “It’s all part of the game.”

With Ballard in the lineup, Minnesota’s defensive corps contributed with four goals for the series. Lucia noted that Chris Harrington’s play improved while paired with Ballard.

Freshman Jake Taylor also appreciated having the assistant

captain back on the ice.

“It’s unreal, the intensity he brings,” Taylor said. “I can’t say enough how much it helps to have him back.”

The return of the team’s top defensive player also allowed the rest of the blue-liners to return from elevated roles they were not accustomed to the last few weeks.

“I think they are getting more comfortable,” Ballard said of the young defensemen. “You can really see they elevated their play when they got comfortable.”

Waibel takes a hit

Senior forward Jon Waibel took a hard hit in the third period Friday and slid head-first into the boards. He was slow to get up and was helped off the ice.

Waibel did not dress for Saturday’s game, but the injury did not appear to be serious.

“He’s a little sore from the hit, but I think he’ll be available next week,” Lucia said.

A big brawler

A bench-clearing semi-brawl broke out after the final horn Friday night, but only one player was penalized for leaving the bench.

Michigan Tech defenseman John Scott – at 6-feet-7-inches, the tallest player in college hockey – received a game disqualification for his role in the fight, something that certainly didn’t help the Huskies’ cause Saturday.

“You take John Scott out of our lineup and it makes a big difference,” Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell said. “Pekka (Saittakari) was playing his first game this year coming off of injury, so it’s hard.”