When Minnesota’s men’s hockey team capped a three-game losing streak by getting swept at home against Colorado College two weeks ago, most assumed the team had hit the bottom of its slide.
And actually, they were right.
It’s just that now the Gophers have to dig up 10 or 20 feet to see rock bottom.
Looking uninterested Friday and simply out of luck Saturday, fourth-ranked Minnesota was swept at Mariucci Arena by last-place Michigan Tech 6-3 Friday and 3-1 Saturday, effectively crippling its shot at the WCHA regular season title and throwing into jeopardy Minnesota’s chance of beginning the conference playoffs at home.
It was the first time the Gophers had been swept in two consecutive series at home since 1976-77 and the first time they were swept by the Huskies since 1970-71.
“If we keep playing like this, we’re not going to be here,” defenseman Chris Harrington said. “We have to get back to that home-ice mystique we have where if a team comes in here, they have to play to perfection to beat us.”
But the thing was, Michigan Tech did just that.
The Gophers (18-9-0, 11-7-0 WCHA) were soundly beaten 6-3 Friday before an announced crowd of 10,147 that, in reality, was approximately two-thirds that figure thanks to a storm that pelted the Twin Cities with 7 inches of snow.
The storm stymied the Huskies as well. But despite arriving at Mariucci Arena just 23 minutes before game time, Michigan Tech (5-17-1, 4-14-0) raced out to a 3-0 lead and punched back every time Minnesota tried to rebound.
After several lineup shake-ups, the Gophers returned with an inspired effort Saturday, taking a 1-0 lead before the Huskies scored twice in 1:05 near the end of the second period to deflate Minnesota’s momentum.
The Gophers attempted 37 shots in the third period, but Michigan Tech blocked 19 of them and allowed only 10 to reach goaltender Cam Ellsworth.
“We took our fair share of attempts,” coach Don Lucia said Saturday. “You can’t fault the kids for their effort.”
The Gophers took a 1-0 lead in the first period in front of 9,677 fans Saturday after Tyler Hirsch’s pass bounced off a Huskies defenseman’s skate before Danny Irmen redirected the puck with his own skate for his 18th goal of the season.
But the Huskies responded at the end of the second, setting up two goals with a slick pass and a lucky bounce.
With 3:23 left in the second, Brandon Schwartz spun around in the crease, moving the puck past goalie Justin Johnson and finding defenseman John Scott with a no-look backhand pass that Scott put home before Johnson could react.
And with 2:18 left, the Huskies took a 2-1 lead after Clay Wilson’s shot bounced off the end boards and right back to Chris Conner, who beat Johnson low for his second goal of the series.
Minnesota could not crack Ellsworth for the equalizer in the third, and Michigan Tech locked up the game when Colin Murphy scored an empty-net goal with 23.5 seconds left.
“Their first goal was flukey, and after that, we got some chances,” Ellsworth said. “We’re feeding off each other, and it’s a lot of fun right now. Anything can happen. There are no sleepers in this league.”
Minnesota slipped to fourth place in the WCHA, getting passed by surging defending national champion Denver, and now leads sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth by just three points.
Minnesota-Duluth, which took three points at top-ranked Colorado College over the weekend, visits Mariucci Arena in a pivotal series this weekend.
And for the first time in a long time, the Gophers cannot take much comfort in home ice.
“We want to figure out what’s wrong, but we can’t do anything about it right now,” Irmen said Saturday. “It starts Monday.”