Gophers down national champ Denver at the X

Mike Mullen

Everywhere there were seams that pulled apart and gaps that widened.

It seemed that whenever Minnesota needed to create space in Saturday’s game against Denver, the Gophers found open ice and Zamboni-sized passing lanes.

And it all came on that comparatively small NHL rink at the Xcel Energy Center.

Minnesota kicked off its regular season with a 5-2 win in the Hall of Fame Game against defending national champion Denver. The Gophers came in holding the No. 6 ranking; the Pioneers were No. 7.

No player spent more time in open ice than Ryan Potulny, who notched a hat trick, the first of his career. The goals came one in each period, with Potulny scoring on power-play, short-handed and empty-net goals.

“I got lucky,” he said. “I just got some chances, and I got lucky.”

Another key performance was goaltender Kellen Briggs’ 34 saves; 19 of which came in the frantic third period.

“Kellen didn’t play well against them in our games last season,” coach Don Lucia said of the Gophers’ 6-2 and 6-3 losses in Colorado last March. “(This game) was a great start for us, and it all started with Kellen.”

Potulny opened the night’s scoring at 3:24 of the first period when he one-timed defenseman Alex Goligoski’s cross-ice pass between goalie Glenn Fisher’s pad and the nearside post.

Tyler Hirsch made the lead

2-0 2:06 into the second period, gaining control of the puck with Fisher already sprawled and beating him with a backhand.

“Tyler Hirsch is such a better player (than last year),” coach Don Lucia said. “He took as big a step as anybody on our team. He’s quicker now, and I think shooting is more important to him.”

The Xcel Energy Center’s seating capacity allowed for 17,409 fans, but Lucia said its NHL rink dimensions – 200 feet by 85 feet, as opposed to Mariucci Arena’s 200-foot-by 100-foot Olympic sheet – led to the 58 total penalty minutes, including a 10-minute major misconduct to Denver’s Geoff Paukovich.

“The game changes on a smaller rink,” Lucia said. “There are more collisions and when you get tired there’s more grabbing and holding. And I think our young guys need to learn what a penalty is.”

With the Gophers up 2-1, Potulny quite literally stole his second goal at 10:28 of the second period. Forechecking while on the penalty kill, he seized a scuffed pass from a Denver defenseman and buried his shot.

Jon Foster of Denver cut the Gophers lead back to one at 3-2 with almost 11 minutes gone in the third period, slapping home a deflected puck on the doorstep for his second goal of the contest.

But a rebound putback by Brent Borgen at 15:25 of the third frame put the Gophers two goals up once more and eventually led to Denver pulling Fisher with just more than a minute left.

That’s when Potulny broke into space at mid ice and onto the national hockey scene with his hat trick.

“We’ve got no time to look back,” Potulny said. “I think last year, having won two national championships, the team came in a little relaxed. But coming back this year, we have a lot to prove.”