Worst brings out the best

Friday’s 3-1 loss was a low point, but the Gophers peaked in Saturday’s 7-2 win.

by Ben Goessling

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The response, the result and the scene couldn’t have been more different.

After asserting itself as the No. 1 team in the country against Michigan and Michigan State and entering the weekend with ample reserves of confidence, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team promptly turned in what might have been its worst effort of the season Friday, falling 3-1 to third-ranked Colorado College.

The Gophers, soundly beaten after losing a 1-0 lead, skipped the traditional postgame handshake with the Tigers, and afterward, you could barely get a player to raise his head long enough to look you in the eye.

But what a difference 24 hours makes – that, along with a few dressing-downs from the coaching staff.

Their mettle as the nation’s top-ranked team in question, the Gophers came back Saturday to World Arena and posted what several players called one of their best games of the year in a 7-2 thrashing of the Tigers before a standing-room-only crowd of 7,390.

This time, music ruminated at ear-splitting levels from Minnesota’s locker room, and it was clear that the message had gotten through.

“We pulled some kids aside and told them they needed to play harder,” coach Don Lucia said. “The individual meetings weren’t anything real long, just a few minutes. I addressed the team before watching video (Saturday). Bottom line – we didn’t compete on Friday. (Saturday) we competed, and you saw the result.”

The Gophers (11-4-0, 7-3-0 WCHA) shored up their defensive lapses after what Lucia called a letdown to goaltender Kellen Briggs on Friday.

Briggs, a Colorado Springs native, saw 24 shots Saturday – one less than the previous night – but surrendered both Tigers goals on the power play and was tested much less often than in Minnesota’s loss.

“We were desperate tonight. We needed to come out of here with some points,” Briggs said. “I told them it doesn’t matter where we’re playing. We have to play for each other. The effort Friday night wasn’t good enough no matter who we’re playing or where we are.”

After the Tigers (11-3-0, 5-3-0) took a 1-0 lead 5:08 into the first period Saturday, the Gophers answered with a power-play score from Danny Irmen seven minutes later.

In the second period Minnesota added two more power-play goals from Irmen and Kris Chucko 25 seconds apart before Colorado College got a score of its own.

Things turned permanently with 4:18 left in the third. After the Tigers couldn’t find the equalizer in a goalmouth scramble that left Briggs lying on the ice, Garrett Smaagaard snagged the puck and lofted a wrist shot from the left circle that beat Tigers goalie Curtis McElhinney.

The goal sealed the senior goalie’s first loss of the year before the floodgates opened for three more Gophers goals in the next three minutes.

Friday night, it was McElhinney and the Tigers that looked like the nation’s new No. 1 team, handing the Gophers a physical 3-1 beating before 7,155.

“The team that won deserved to win,” Lucia said Friday. “They had a much greater sense of urgency than we did. I don’t know if we had the emotional involvement needed.”

After Irmen put the Gophers up in the first, Briggs surrendered a rebound goal to Marty Sertich with 14:08 left in the second.

When Irmen took an interference penalty at 11:44, the Tigers went ahead for good on another putback score, this time from Joey Crabb.

Colorado College stretched its lead to 3-1 on freshman James Brannigan’s first-ever goal, and that was all the Tigers needed.

Their stifling defense limited Minnesota to four third-period shots, including just one on two power plays, and Colorado College won most of the loose puck battles late.

“It was more heart and head (than legs),” center Ryan Potulny said. “Our heads weren’t in it.”

But, by Saturday afternoon, the coaching staff had done a job on the Gophers’ mindset. And the result was a complete 180.

“They made sure we knew how bad we played (Friday),” Irmen said. “We felt like we had something to prove. Not every night can be your best game, but it’s how you respond to those.”