Though many Gophers fans will remember John Pohl’s Saturday night hat trick against Denver, it was Pohl’s perfect pass that broke the Pioneers’ back.
Near the end of the second period of a seesaw game, Pohl — who already had three goals on the night — took a crossing pass at the point. He deked a falling Denver defender and gunned a pass to linemate Pat O’Leary, who was all alone on the Pioneers’ doorstep.
The puck hit O’Leary on the tape, and he banged it home, giving the Gophers a 5-3 lead with less than a minute to play in second period. It was a lead they would never relinquish.
“Their fifth goal late in the second period on the power play really took the wind out of our sails,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “That put them up, and going into the final period of an emotional weekend two goals down was tough for us to overcome, especially with the way they clamped down in the third period.”
And the Gophers did clamp down, winning the third period 2-0 and shutting out the Pioneers for a 7-3 win and their third home sweep of the season.
The win brought Minnesota (10-10-2, 6-6-2 WCHA) to the .500 mark for the first time this year. The Gophers went 4-0 over the holiday break and are one point behind sixth-place St. Cloud in the WCHA.
“We were much more complete tonight. We finished the game. This was a big sweep for us. It’s great to finally be .500, but I don’t know how long we can enjoy it,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said after Saturday night’s game.
Lucia was already looking ahead to next weekend’s showdown with North Dakota in Grand Forks.
The Gophers also looked impressive Friday night — for a period. Then they looked like what they were earlier, a team unaccustomed to holding a large early lead.
Minnesota withstood Denver’s early flurry of shots, including the game’s first goal. The Gophers stormed back to score five unanswered goals and close out the first period with a 5-1 lead.
Denver battled back but was still down 6-4 with one minute to play when they pulled goaltender Wade Dubielewicz.
Denver then muscled in two goals in the last 24 seconds to tie the game. Minnesota fans, most of whom were listening to the game on the radio on the way home, were stunned.
The two teams then mucked their way through a lackadaisical overtime noteworthy for only two reasons.
First, Gophers star forward and leading goal scorer, Erik Westrum, was ejected from the game and disqualified for Saturday’s game for kicking Denver defenseman Erik Adams.
Adams and Westrum were jostling after a whistle, and Adams got the better of Westrum, pushing him to the ice. Westrum brought Adams down with him and then kicked both skates into Adams midsection, leaving a cut the size of a skate blade.
Then came the stunner. After the penalties were sorted out, Denver won the ensuing face-off but turned the puck over at the Minnesota blue line.
John Pohl, who had four assists on the night, picked up the loose puck and fired a long pass to a streaking Jordan Leopold. Leopold beat Dubielewicz short side with 6.9 seconds remaining for an improbable Minnesota victory.
Despite the win, Minnesota players and coaches were unhappy with Friday night’s performance, especially their defense, and set out to improve Saturday.
“I’m more upset about tonight than any game all year,” Lucia said Friday night. “Even though we had a 5-1 lead, I didn’t like the way we were playing. We lost a couple games early in the year I thought we should have won, so maybe this is payback. Maybe we deserved a break this year.”
Lucia stressed the need to tighten up in the defensive zone to his players Friday night. The team responded, playing excellent defense and holding their lead in the third period Saturday.
Minnesota’s offense kept clicking Saturday, not missing a beat despite the loss of Westrum. The Gophers have scored 25 goals in their last four games, led by Pohl. Pohl, with eight points on the weekend on three goals and five assists, is now second in the WCHA in scoring with 22 points.
Pohl and the streaking Gophers — unbeaten in their last five games — head to Ralph Englestad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., to face the nationally ranked Sioux.
North Dakota will be looking to take their frustrations out on Minnesota after being beaten twice in overtime at Wisconsin last weekend.
Minnesota’s offensive resurgence over the holiday break began with a commanding performance in its home invitational.
The Gophers opened their tournament action with a 5-2 win over Harvard.
Pohl again paced Minnesota, netting three assists. Westrum, Dave Spehar, Dan Welch, Mark Nenovich and Aaron Miskovich each scored for the Gophers.
The championship game pitted Minnesota against Northern Michigan, then ranked seventh in the country, who defeated Massachusetts-Amherst in the other semifinal.
The Gophers came out strong, finishing the first period with a 3-1 lead en route to a 6-2 win. Pohl, Dylan Mills, Miskovich, Spehar, Nate Miller and O’Leary scored for Minnesota.
Adam Hauser was stellar between the pipes for Minnesota, stopping 73 of 77 shots over the weekend, earning tournament MVP honors. Pohl and Westrum also made the all-tournament team. Spehar’s two goals made him the tournaments all-time leading scorer.
Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]