Battles with Michigan schools showcase Gophers’ struggles

by Adam Fink

The five Minnesota men’s hockey players were still shaking their heads as they prepared for a face-off at center ice with 30 seconds remaining.

Moments earlier, the Gophers were setting their offense in motion – trailing by one goal – with their goaltender headed for the bench and an opportunity to tie the game.

Before Travis Weber reached his teammates, the Gophers’ Dan Welch – in an attempt to center the puck from behind Michigan’s net – sent the puck into his own goal at the opposite end of the ice.

Welch’s miscue effectively ended the game for Minnesota and highlighted a weekend where the Gophers dominated play but were done in by mental lapses.

Along with a 3-1 loss to the Wolverines on Sunday, Minnesota tied Michigan State 5-5 on Friday night. This is only the third time in the 10 years of the College Hockey Showcase that Minnesota (7-4-4) failed to earn at least one win in the showcase.

“It’s disappointing,” sophomore Keith Ballard said. “We played two close games this weekend against good teams. That means we aren’t too far off.”

Ballard was a central figure in Sunday’s outcome. With Minnesota railing 1-0 in the second period, Ballard scored on a rebound of a Thomas Vanek shot.

With the Gophers on the power play later in the period, Ballard attempted to keep the puck in Minnesota’s zone.

The Wolverines’ Dwight Helminen beat Ballard to the puck and proceeded to score the game-winning goal short-handed.

“That play was huge,” Wolverines coach Red Berenson said. “It was the difference in the game.”

The loss is especially disheartening for Minnesota, considering it out-shot Michigan (39-33) and had more power-play attempts (four to two).

Minnesota could not find the back of the net against 17-year-old Al Montoya, who notched a career-high 38 saves.

“Montoya was outstanding,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “He takes up a lot of the net. We had good opportunities.”

On Friday, Minnesota again trailed for most of the evening, but Vanek came to the rescue with two third period goals while recording his second career hat trick.

Michigan State scored twice in the final 42 seconds of the second period. On the scores, the Gophers appeared confused defensively and could not clear the puck.

“Never in my years of coaching have I seen a team score twice late in the period like that,” Lucia said. “We weren’t using our brains at times.”

Trailing 5-3 midway through the third period, Vanek put the team on his shoulders.

For the game, the freshman attempted 15 of Minnesota’s 51 shots and scored twice in the final 14 minutes, sending hats to the Mariucci Arena ice and the Gophers on their way to a tie.

“My job is to go hard to the net and it paid off,” Vanek said. “There were good passes. I just wish we would have won.”

Weber made both starts in goal this weekend for the Gophers. Against the Wolverines, Weber made 30 saves and regained the confidence he lost against Michigan State.

The sophomore goalie made 25 saves against the Spartans but said afterward he was not comfortable and did not play up to his standards.

After a weekend outside of the WCHA, the Gophers return to conference play this weekend at Wisconsin.

ï Barry Tallackson returned to the lineup for Minnesota on Friday. Lucia said the forward appeared rusty but rebounded with a better performance Sunday.

ï Junior Troy Riddle recorded his 100th point of his Gopher career Friday night. The century mark came in the third period on an assist of Vanek’s second goal.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]