Gophers miss chance to take first in WCHA

by Michael Rand

Just as there is never a bad time to win, there is also never a particularly good time to lose.
No matter when losses come, they count equally on a team’s record. At the end of a season, few people remember a team’s individual wins and losses — they simply see the overall record.
When the Gophers hockey team finishes its regular season and, in all likelihood, starts preparing for the NCAA tournament, its series this weekend against Denver at Mariucci Arena will probably be a small blip in the big picture.
For the time being, however, Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Pioneers — one which came the night after an emotional 3-2 overtime win — will sting. Displaying the timing of a three-dollar watch, the Gophers played their worst game in more than a month on an evening when a victory would have moved them into first place.
St. Cloud State’s 6-1 loss to North Dakota on Saturday paved the way for Minnesota to move a point ahead of the Huskies and the Sioux with a win. Instead, the Gophers (15-7, 12-6 in the WCHA) are in a third-place tie with Colorado College, a point behind those two teams.
Gophers coach Doug Woog said the team discussed its opportunity to move into first place in a pre-game meeting, only to see the chance fade with a lackluster effort.
“You can talk all you want at one (o’clock), but you have to strap them on at seven,” Woog said.
Minnesota’s players looked a step behind Denver’s for the first 50 minutes as the Pioneers grabbed a 3-0 first period lead. With the score 4-0 midway through the third period, the Gophers found some enthusiasm and a couple of quick goals, but the rally was far too late.
The Pioneers jumped out to a lead just 2:32 into the game when Jon Newman took a nice feed from Warren Smith and beat Gophers goalie Steve DeBus low on his blocker side.
For a while, it looked like Minnesota might escape the first period down by only one goal. DeBus made several key saves and Denver’s Charlie Host hit the goalpost with a shot after 15 minutes had passed in the period.
But two goals late in the first period for the Pioneers put the finishing touches on a dominating 20 minutes of hockey that the Gophers couldn’t answer. Denver’s defense and goaltender Jim Mullin did the rest until Minnesota’s late comeback attempt.
“Team defense was our priority,” Mullin said. “There were some really smart plays by our guys. I thought everyone played very well.”
Woog, meanwhile, was not as quick to praise all of his players. Although he thought the Gophers got some bad breaks and could have climbed back into the game earlier with better fortune, he questioned the intensity of his players, particularly those on the top two lines.
“Why is it always the lower lines drawing penalties?” Woog wondered aloud. “The first lines need to play with more of a never-say-die attitude.”
The Gophers displayed some of that attitude in their overtime thriller Friday night. At the same time, however, they foreshadowed Saturday’s uninspired effort.
After grabbing a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Bill Kohn and Dave Spehar, the Gophers let Denver climb back into the game. The Pioneers tied the game with seven minutes left in regulation to force overtime.
In the extra session, Gophers senior Nick Checco fired a knuckleball from the right circle past freshman goalie Stephen Wagner to save the game for Minnesota. The odds on the game ending that way were not good: The Gophers were 0-2 in overtime prior to Friday, and Checco had scored just one goal all season.
“The puck came out to me spinning like crazy. I was just thinking about putting it on net to give my teammates a chance at a rebound,” Checco said. “It feels great to score any time — it feels good in practice.”
It’s doubtful Checco felt quite as good on Saturday when his goal with five minutes left brought Minnesota within 4-2.
Although it kept the Gophers’ candle flickering for a few extra minutes, it also served as a reminder of what might have happened if they had played the entire game like they did for the final 10 minutes.

Denver 0 1 1 0 — 2
Gophers 2 0 0 1 — 3

First Period: Min — Kohn 4 (Kraft, N. Miller), 3:59. Min — Spehar 6 (unassisted), 14:25.
Second Period: Den — Patterson 4 (Corbett) 11:48.
Third Period: Den — Newman 8 (Gunther) PPG, 13:00.
Overtime: Min — Checco 2 (J. Godbout, Anderson), 1:35.

Denver 3 0 2 — 5
Gophers 0 0 2 — 2

First Period: Den — Newman 9 (Smith, Corbett), 2:32. Den — Laaksonen 11 (Comrie, Bjork), 17:42. Den — Andersson 6 (Murphy, Laaksonen) PPG, 19:20.
Second Period: No scoring.
Third Period: Den — Bjork 5 (Comrie), 3:56. Min — Crowley 4 (Clymer, Spehar) PPG, 9:36. Min — Checco 3 (Smith, Crowley), 14:55. Den — Murphy 4 (Gunther) ENG, 19:21.