Showcased talent: Gophers sweep

A After Troy Riddle’s shorthanded goal with 59 seconds remaining in the second period Saturday, it looked as if Minnesota’s men’s hockey team’s penalty kill had won the specialty teams battle.

The battle wasn’t over for another five minutes, however, as the Gophers penalty kill had to stave off three-on-five and four-on-five player disadvantages after defenseman Keith Ballard was handed a game misconduct for a checking from behind penalty.

But Minnesota (6-7-1, 3-6-1 WCHA) won that battle and eventually the war when Andy Sertich and Barry Tallackson tallied third-period goals leading to a 4-2 victory over No. 5 Michigan (9-5-0, 5-3-0 CCHA). Coupled with a triumph over Michigan State (8-7-1, 6-3-1 CCHA) on Friday, the weekend marked the Gophers’ first two-win performance at the College Hockey Showcase since the 1995-96 season.

Coach Don Lucia told his players before the game in Ann Arbor that Michigan was his favorite to play. Although losing to the Wolverines last year in the Showcase, Minnesota knocked the Wolverines out of the semifinals of the last two NCAA tournaments.

On Saturday night the Gophers did not disappoint Lucia, as many of the things going right for the team looked especially good in the victory.

“I thought it was a great job by our penalty kill,” Lucia said. “Certainly we played the type of game that we expected; it seems that’s the type of game we have with Michigan every time we play them.”

Sertich was one player who elevated his play in the third period when Ballard was forced to stay in the locker room. Lucia moved the forward to defense alongside Chris Harrington, where he played during most of Ballard’s seven-game injury absence, during a four-on-four sequence.

The experience came in handy 6:36 into the final period when Harrington rolled to the top of the blue line and found Sertich near the net for the go-ahead goal.

“We discussed that play a few times when we were partners,” Sertich said. “It finally worked – he made a great pass.”

Despite losing, Michigan coach Red Berenson said the game was the hardest his team has worked this season. He also said the College Hockey Showcase, which pits Michigan and Michigan State of the CCHA against Minnesota and Wisconsin of the WCHA, always gives him an idea of how good his team really is.

Earlier last week, that is exactly what many Gophers expected of the weekend, and they, too, were not disappointed.

“This was by far the most intense game we’ve played all year,” said Riddle, an assistant captain. “It was a playoff-type atmosphere.”

The game was also one of Minnesota’s most evenly matched of the year. Both teams had 32 shots on goal, and the lead changed three times.

On Friday against Michigan State, Minnesota’s offense exploded for five goals on 52 shots, the most shots on goal since the Gophers’ victory against Mercyhurst in the NCAA tournament last March. Minnesota’s top two lines combined for four goals and six assists en route to the 5-1 victory.

Despite fending off the barrage of Minnesota shots, Spartans goaltender Dominic Vicari only trailed 3-1 after two periods.

Early in the third, Thomas Vanek scored the Gophers’ crucial fourth goal, the first full-strength goal of the game for Minnesota.

“It takes a toll on you,” Vicari said. “You let the fourth one in and it just kind of kills everybody in the third period like that.”

With the successful road trip, Minnesota extended its winning streak to four games.

“Our goal is to be back over .500 by Christmas,” Lucia said Saturday. “Hopefully we can keep digging out of our hole; this is the way we need to play.”