Minnesota sweeps into first place

Chris Lempesis

Minnesotaís menís hockey team took more than 50 minutes to score its third goal Friday night.

The Gophers didnít take nearly that long to get goal No. 3 Saturday night, scoring their third marker just 8:34 into the game.

The time margin on those particular statistics might be significant, but in the end the result was the same for Minnesota: victory.

The Gophers used their quick start Saturday to roll to a definitive 5-1 Western Collegiate Hockey Association win over Denver at Mariucci Arena to complete the sweep. The win came on the heels of Fridayís emotional 3-2 triumph.

ìThat was the key to the game (Saturday),” coach Don Lucia said. ìThat we came out with real good energy and scored those two quick goals and then the third one. Thatís a great way to start at home and get the fans into the game and really make it difficult for that visiting team.”

It was evident top-ranked Minnesota (21-6-5, 16-5-3 WCHA, 35 points, first place) would be making things tough on seventh-ranked Denver (18-12-2, 15-7-2 WCHA, 32 points, third place) almost from the word ìgo” Saturday.

Junior forward Danny Irmen, back in the lineup this weekend after missing last weekendís series at Michigan Tech with a separated shoulder, gave the Gophers the lead 1:08 in on a power play as he re-routed senior defenseman Chris Harringtonís shot past Pioneers goalie Peter Mannino.

It took all of 29 seconds for Minnesota to double the lead.

Freshman forward Phil Kessel made a nice play in a 2-on-1 situation to draw the defender and hit Ben Gordon, who deposited the puck by Mannino.

Another strong play by Kessel set up the final goal of the early outburst. The freshman phenom essentially went coast to coast to fire off a shot from the circle that rebounded right out to Irmen between the circles, and Irmen did the rest, firing it in to make it a 3-0 game.

ì(The start was) a little different than from our previous Saturday games of the past couple months,” Harrington said. ìWeíve been known on Saturdays to come out a little sluggish, and tonight it was a pleasant surprise.”

Perhaps it was too much of a pleasant surprise, however. Minnesota appeared to go into cruise control in the second period, and the two-time defending national champion Pioneers took advantage.

The visitors got a goal from senior forward Gabe Gauthier with 54 seconds left in the second to cut its deficit to two at 3-1.

Just as quickly, though, the Gophers took the momentum back ó that and any remaining wind out of Denverís sails.

Eight seconds after Gauthierís goal, freshman forward Ryan Stoa banked a shot by Mannino to regain a three-goal lead for Minnesota.

Alex Goligoskiís one-timer goal on the power play midway through the third closed things out.

The Gophersí power play, struggling coming into the series, came back with a strong 2-for-8 showing Saturday.

ìThe power play, (Friday) night, I think we kind of fumbled around a little bit,” Lucia said. ìWe werenít as crisp. But I thought tonight we were much more crisp with the puck movement and getting the puck to the net.”

But it was the other aspect of Minnesotaís special teams, the penalty kill, which was most responsible for Fridayís win.

The Gophers had two defenseman, senior P.J. Atherton in the first and Goligoski in the third, tossed for checking from behind. Thus, Minnesota was forced into two five-minute penalty kill situations against a Denver power play which was coming off an 8-for-16 showing last weekend.

Minnesota kept the Pioneers to zero goals in 10 power-play minutes.

ìThose five minute penalties we took is hard, but we did a great job killing it,” junior Ryan Potulny said. ìAnd it was everybody, too. It wasnít just a couple guys.”

The second five-minute penalty kill was especially impressive as the Gophers held Denver to just two shots and kept the score even at two.

The crowd of 10,189 fed off Minnesotaís effort in the second long penalty kill. Mariucci Arena was perhaps louder than itís been all season.

ìThe crowd was crazy,” Denver sophomore forward Ryan Dingle said. ìThat was probably the loudest Iíve ever heard a building ó I think including the Frozen Four last year.”

Minnesota, in turn, fed off the energy from the crowd, and, just 31 seconds after killing off the penalty to Goligoski, got a power play of its own.

And unlike the Pioneers, the Gophers were able to capitalize.

It was none other than Potulny, tied for tops in the nation in power-play goals coming into the weekend, who netted the game-winner.

Potulnyís first shot on goal was saved by goalie Glenn Fisher. Gordon then kicked the rebound back over to Potulny in the slot, and Potulny buried it for his second goal of the game to make the score 3-2.

ìItís nice right now, but you got another game tomorrow,” Potulny said Friday. ìYou gotta go home and go to bed and get up. Itís a new day tomorrow. You canít get too high on yourself as a team. So, we know itís going to be a battle again tomorrow. Theyíre going to come out hard.”

But when Saturday did come around, one team clearly came out with more intensity than the other, and it showed on the scoreboard.

That team was Minnesota. And that team is now in first place again.

ìOur goal was simple coming into the weekend,” Lucia said. ì(It) was just to be ahead of Denver at the end of the weekend, and we were able to accomplish that.”