In a weekend where the number “two” reared its head time and time again, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team never benefited from any of the number’s good fortune.
The top-ranked Gophers dropped two games to No. 15 North Dakota, a 5-3 defeat Friday and a 7-3 meltdown Saturday, in a definitive Western Collegiate Hockey Association sweep at Mariucci Arena.
when: 10:07 p.m. Friday
where: Anchorage, Alaska
Minnesota has won two of its last six games, a far cry from its 22-game unbeaten streak that ended just three weekends ago.
The Sioux wins came on the heels of two goals in each game by sophomore winger Ryan Duncan.
The 5-foot-6-inch sniper launched pucks from all areas of the offensive zone and found the net with a goal-scorer’s touch.
“The ability to one-time pucks is a special art,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “Elite goal-scorers have that ability Ö and he has it.”
Duncan tallied seven points in the series, and along with his line mates – sophomore center Jonathan Toews and sophomore winger T.J. Oshie – North Dakota’s first line looked unstoppable while mustering 16 combined points on the weekend.
“Oshie, Duncan and Toews are great players,” Sioux junior defenseman Robbie Bina said. “When they’re all clicking, things are going to happen, and this weekend it happened.”
Through the first 15 minutes of Friday night’s game, the complexion of the series looked completely different.
Minnesota (21-5-3 overall, 13-4-3 WCHA) blew a two-goal, first period lead en route to five unanswered goals by North Dakota. The Gophers would repeat that blunder in game two as the Sioux turned a 3-2 first period deficit into a 7-3 drubbing.
Many of those unanswered goals came in period two of each game. Minnesota didn’t score a single goal in the second during the weekend and were outscored 5-0 in the process.
“They had us in our end in the second period both nights,” Gophers junior forward Mike Howe said. “Right now we’re waiting for things to happen and we’re responding after we get down.”
It wasn’t as though Minnesota didn’t have chances. North Dakota (15-11-2, 9-9-2) allowed the Gophers 23 power-play opportunities over the course of the weekend.
Minnesota scored on five of those 23 power plays – a less than 22 percent conversion rate.
But perhaps the bigger issue was the Gophers’ inability to score an even-strength goal. Minnesota didn’t score at even strength in the series (five power-play goals and one with an extra skater on a delayed penalty) and have done so three times in its last four games.
“They had a jump on us in every aspect of the game,” Howe said. “We worked really hard, but things just didn’t go our way.”
Ultimately, the Gophers’ fate in the national polls rests in the fact they will drop. Where to is still in question, but after being thoroughly outplayed by the Sioux, it would be generous to come away from the series with a No. 2 national rank.
And in the conference, Minnesota lost two more crucial points to St. Cloud State, which now trails the Gophers by just three points in the race for the MacNaughton Cup.
Heading into next weekend’s series at Alaska Anchorage, Minnesota will need the number two in its favor, in the form of two wins, in order to hang on to the conference lead.
“Sometimes you have to bottom out before you can get yourself back up,” Lucia said. “I’m hoping this was it.”