Gophers sweep Mankato

by Chris Lempesis

Sloppy. Unfocused. Outworked.

There were many adjectives to describe the performance of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team in its season-opening series against Alaska-Fairbanks last weekend, but few, if any, were good.

Well, fear not Gophers fans – you can break out a much more positive set of words to describe Minnesota’s play this weekend.

The Gophers were a different team in their opening Western Collegiate Hockey Association series against Minnesota State-Mankato, and that was reflected on the scoreboard. Seventh-ranked Minnesota swept the Mavericks by scores of 5-2 Friday and 4-3 Saturday at Mariucci Arena.

“Coming into league play, everyone, including myself, got a little more jacked up for this series,” sophomore defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “I don’t think everyone’s head was into it the first weekend.

“I think everyone was just a little bit more ready to play.”

This was no more obvious than late in Saturday’s victory.

Clinging to a 4-3 lead, the Gophers (2-1-1, 2-0-0 WCHA) were faced with a five-minute penalty kill after freshman Ryan Stoa was called for checking from behind and received a 10-minute game misconduct penalty.

It would take a strong effort from the entire team to keep the Mavericks (0-4-0, 0-2-0) from evening the score, and that was exactly what the Gophers turned out.

Minnesota blocked shots, got in lanes and just generally outworked its opponent in killing off the entire penalty without allowing a goal, eventually holding on for the win.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” Goligoski said. “Five minute power-play in this league, you expect (the opponent to) maybe score one, maybe two goals and for us to kill that off in the last seven minutes of the game was unbelievable.”

This stretch was indicative of the entire weekend for the Gophers.

After essentially two good periods of play against the Nanooks, Minnesota was consistently solid for most of the 120 minutes of play this weekend.

The Gophers got balanced scoring, strong goaltending – especially from junior Kellen Briggs, who made 31 saves in Friday’s win – and an overall more physical effort.

“We wanted to get off to a good start in the WCHA and wanted to see what we could be as a team,” said freshman goalie Jeff Frazee, who turned away 20 shots in Saturday’s win. “And see what we were made of. Find an identity for our team.”

But there is some searching left to be done.

After all, Minnesota committed 25 penalties on the weekend, including 17 Friday, and coach Don Lucia said his team is still getting into too much one-on-one play at the offensive blue line and has to work on changing lines at the appropriate time.

But as the Gophers prepare to head to St. Cloud State for their first road series of the season next weekend, at least they’ll be bringing a more upbeat vernacular with them.

“We came in here and we played two really solid games,” Goligoski said. “So, yeah, I think it was a great weekend to build off.”