Goalies shine as Gophers split with MSU

Minnesota lost its first game since Nov. 30 on Friday to MSU-Mankato.

Drew Claussen

After an emotional series with North Dakota last weekend, the No. 1 Gophers knew it wasn’t going to get much easier down the stretch. No. 14 Minnesota State-Mankato proved that notion correct over the weekend.

The Gophers (18-4-4, 10-4-4 WCHA) and Mavericks split a two-game home-and-home series. Minnesota rebounded with a 4-1 win Saturday in Mankato, Minn., after losing 2-1 on Friday at Mariucci Arena.

Friday’s loss snapped a 10-game unbeaten streak for the Gophers. The Mavericks have accounted for half of Minnesota’s losses this season.

Both teams’ freshman goaltenders had outstanding weekends. Mavericks goalie Stephon Williams was the star of Friday night’s game and racked up 37 saves while allowing one goal.

Adam Wilcox was sharp both nights, but the key to Saturday night’s victory was Minnesota’s defense, which shut down the Mavericks’ offense early and allowed the Gophers to jump out to an early lead.

“They’re good defensively,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “We continued to push, but they’re good from the paint out.”

Minnesota had its best defensive game of the season Saturday, when it blocked 30 shots in the game.

“I thought our willingness to sacrifice our body a little bit was much better tonight,” Gophers head coach Don Lucia said. “The willingness to block shots, the willingness to box out in front of Adam. … We were much sharper and much better.”

The opening goal Saturday came off the stick of an unlikely player as Gophers forward Justin Holl found himself on a breakaway and scored. The unassisted goal snapped a 42-game scoreless streak for the former defenseman.

“[Holl]’s been a great team guy this year, moving up to forward,” Lucia said. “With the depth on our back end, we felt he would be more valuable there this year, and he’s starting to come on.”

Nate Schmidt added a power-play goal in the first period to put the Gophers up 2-0.

“We knew we had to get the win here tonight, especially going into a bye weekend,” captain Zach Budish said. “We came out and got those first two goals, and I think we started to play our game then.”

Minnesota’s power play rebounded from a dismal 0-for-2 performance Friday to go 2-for-3 on Saturday.

“Our entry was so poor last night,” Lucia said Saturday. He said he thought Minnesota had four straight turnovers at the blue line during the power play Friday. “We scored a couple key goals tonight on the power play.”

The Mavericks stepped up their intensity after the first period, but Wilcox and the Gophers’ defense stymied them.

Budish added another power play goal in the third to make it 3-0.

MSU got on the board with seven minutes remaining in the third when Zach Lehrke hammered a rebound past Wilcox.

Seconds later, Johnny McInnis deflected another shot past Wilcox and appeared to cut the deficit to one. The fifth-largest crowd in the history of the Verizon Wireless Center blew up, but the goal was reviewed and determined to be punched in by McInnis.

The reversal killed the Mavericks’ momentum, angered the fans and all but ended any thoughts of a comeback.

MSU later pulled its goalie, leading to an empty-net goal by Erik Haula. 

On Friday, Brett Knowles scored with 44 seconds left to give the Mavericks the upset victory.

“You knew it was going to be low-scoring. One play was going to make the game,” Lucia said Friday. “They made the play in the final minute.”

Williams, who made 20 saves in the third period alone, made the game-winner possible. The freshman stood tall as the Gophers launched numerous shots following Knowles’ goal.

Schmidt gave the Gophers a one-goal lead after a scoreless first period when he found himself alone in front of Williams. Schmidt lit the lamp after a nifty move near the crease.

“I just found myself in a couple unique situations tonight,” Schmidt said Friday of being so close to the net even though he’s a defenseman. “Right now we’re trying to press a little bit [as defenders] and get pucks to the net.”

Later in the second period, McInnis tied the game on the power play after a great behind-the-net pass from Matt Leitner.

The game was relatively clean, but Lucia said the key was that the Mavericks capitalized on a power play chance and the Gophers did not. The Mavericks went 1-for-3 on the power play and recorded only one shot — McInnis’ goal.

Minnesota will have a bye week before heading to St. Cloud, Minn., to face the Western Collegiate Hockey Association-leading Huskies in two weeks.

Lucia said the bye week gives the team a chance to spend more practice time on things they usually don’t get to.

“We want to make sure our guys are rested; we want to make sure they’re fresh,” Lucia said, “but [we] also want to make sure we get some good quality work in.”