Minnesota men’s hockey forward Thomas Vanek gained control of the puck three minutes into the second period of Saturday’s game and dashed toward the net.
The Mariucci Arena crowd’s noise rose in anticipation as Vanek cut for the goal and deked just as he has many times before.
But Vanek’s shot was blocked by St. Cloud State goaltender Adam Coole, then put back by a different Gophers player – one unseen on the ice for four months.
Freshman Ryan Potulny returned to the lineup Saturday and scored his first-ever goal as a Minnesota player, helping the Gophers secure home ice in the first round of the playoffs by sweeping the Huskies.
“That’s exactly what this kid can do,” assistant coach Bob Motzko said. “He helped us get a game-winner, and he can be a spark for us and continue to help us win big games down the stretch.”
Potulny injured his left knee in the seventh game of the season against North Dakota, and after playing on it the next night, discovered surgery was necessary to repair the damage.
The early thought was that Potulny would take a medical redshirt to gain an extra year of eligibility.
But after much family discussion, late Friday night Ryan Potulny said he decided to sacrifice that extra year for a chance to help his team in its playoff run – and play with his brother Grant Potulny again.
“That was a factor in my decision,” Ryan Potulny said. “I talked to my family and called some other people, but it really came down to my decision. And it’s tough to sit out when you can play the game at your best.”
Ryan Potulny worked hard at his rehabilitation and began skating on his own a month ago and has been in practice for three weeks.
Minnesota’s coaches said they understood Ryan Potulny’s decision. Although they said they would like for him to have a full extra year of eligibility, as a second-round NHL draft pick, there might not be a strong likelihood he’ll return for a fifth year.
“The question became, ‘Do you plan on being here for a fifth year?’ ” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “If you don’t plan on being here for a fifth year, then why not play?”
Whether that extra year would come in handy, Ryan Potulny said he is happy to be back in uniform.
And his family and teammates said they are happy, too.
“It was his decision, so I couldn’t tell him what to do,” Grant Potulny said. “But I was nudging him a little bit – I wanted him back.”
Seniors to remember
Minnesota’s seniors were recognized on the ice with their parents in a pre-game ceremony Saturday.
Grant Potulny, Matt Koalska, Troy Riddle, Jon Waibel and Joey Martin helped Minnesota win back-to-back national championships, a WCHA Final Five Championship and three top-three league finishes.
So it was somewhat surprising that in their senior year, they would be scratching just for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
In sweeping St. Cloud State, the Gophers looked more like they have in years past.
“It’s tough for me to say we’re back to our old selves, because we did some things (Saturday) we need to correct,” Grant Potulny said. “But we played pretty well.”