Reserves power Gophers 4-2 exhibition win

David La Vaque

For the goaltender who lost his starting privileges and the senior forward with nine games played in his career, Monday’s hockey exhibition between Minnesota and Team Italy meant something extra.

The Gophers’ 4-2 win was backstopped by sophomore Justin Johnson, who platooned in goal with Travis Weber until coach Don Lucia made Weber the starter for the last seven-straight games.

Johnson shook the rust off and saved 16 of the 18 shots he faced. But Johnson is having a harder time shaking off his new role on the bench.

“Obviously I’m not thrilled,” Johnson said. “But we’re winning. All I can do is work hard in practice and capitalize on my chances.”

Making the most of Monday’s game opportunity was somewhat difficult for Johnson, given the relaxed atmosphere in the locker room.

However, senior forward Chad Roberg tried to rally the troops with a pre-game speech reminding players to give an effort worthy of their last game ever.

For Roberg, this is a sobering reality. And so the walk-on winger played with incentive Monday, flying around the ice and delivering a few hard hits in an otherwise finesse game.

“I played like I was going to die at 9:30 tonight,” said Roberg, who started the game. “It meant so much to play, because any game could be the last one I play in at Minnesota.”

On one of his final shifts, Roberg stormed off the Gophers’ bench and delivered a crunching check behind the Team Italy goal.

The hit brought out a hearty ‘Let’s go Roberg’ cheer from what remained of the 9,455 in attendance, and brought tears to Roberg’s eyes.

“I realize this isn’t everyone’s most important game,” Roberg said. “But for me and a few other guys, it was a chance to be a Gopher with the ‘M’ on out there.”

Several players who normally grace the lineup were missing. Thomas Vanek is overseas playing with Team Austria while Troy Riddle, Jon Waibel and Matt DeMarchi all sat out. P.J. Atherton (leg injury) was kept out of Monday’s game.

Freshman Andy Sertich opened the scoring Monday at 8:33 with a rebound goal in front of the Team Italy net.

Nick Anthony chipped in with a marker of his own less than two minutes later.

In the second period, Keith Ballard put the home team up 3-1 with a goal. Matt Koalska, who was credited with an assist on the goal, then notched a tally of his own to make the count 4-1.

The list of unlikely and infrequent starters was completed when walk-on goalie Dustin Smieja was inserted into the game with less than 10 seconds remaining.

The freshman was credited with one save.

“We got what we wanted out of tonight,” Lucia said. “We moved the puck around, had some fun and rewarded some guys who don’t get much ice time.”

ï Lucia is now 3-1 in exhibition games at Minnesota. The Gophers play host to the U.S. National Under-18 Team in an exhibition game on Jan. 17.

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]