Coming into the final series of the regular season Friday night against second-place St. Cloud State, the seventh-place Gophers men’s hockey team was searching for anything to turn its abysmal season and 12-game road losing streak around.
Junior center Reggie Berg slept with his hockey stick Thursday night for good luck, and the team wore its usual white home jerseys Friday night in St. Cloud and its special maroon and black uniforms, designed by captain Casey Hankinson, for Saturday’s home finale at Mariucci Arena.
Whatever it was, it seemed to work.
Berg recorded his third career hat trick in Friday’s 6-2 road victory over the Huskies and five different Gophers’ players scored during Saturday’s 5-3 home win, including third-period goals by seniors Hankinson and Ryan Kraft that broke a 3-3 tie.
“We got some breaks,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “We scored some goals that we never got earlier in the season — not enough of them anyway.”
Not only did Minnesota (16-20 overall, 12-16 WCHA) sweep the same St. Cloud State (19-13-2, 16-11-1) team that frustrated it in 3-1 and 4-1 losses in mid-December, but the Gophers moved up from seventh- to sixth-place in the conference standings, setting up a first-round WCHA playoff matchup at Minnesota-Duluth next weekend.
Had Minnesota failed to pass Michigan Tech for sixth place in the standings in the season’s final two games, it would have instead opened the playoffs on the road at Colorado College, a team the Gophers went 0-4 against in the regular season. Minnesota has a 3-1 record versus Minnesota-Duluth this season and has outscored the Bulldogs 21-12 in four games.
For the Huskies, their fourth-place finish means that they will host seventh-place Michigan Tech instead of ninth-place Alaska-Anchorage, who they would have hosted had they stayed in second place behind regular-season champion North Dakota.
In the first two meetings between Minnesota and St. Cloud State, the Gophers outshot the Huskies 75-32, including an amazing 42-9 edge in the first game, but lost twice. Over the weekend, however, the tables were turned.
Minnesota, which outshot the Huskies 69-51 this time, dominated both games, capitalized on several timely plays and got the breaks it needed in order to win.
“When you work hard like that and you are persistent and keep going, good things will happen and the breaks will go your way,” Kraft said.
On Saturday the Gophers rebounded from a 2-0 second-period deficit by scoring three goals in a eight-minute span, the last by sophomore wing Dave Spehar, to take a 3-2 lead into the final period. The Gophers then scored twice in the final 13 minutes after St. Cloud State’s George Awada tied the game three and a half minutes into the third period.
Minnesota’s final three goals of the game all came on unusual plays for the Gophers.
Spehar’s goal came on a wraparound pass attempt that hit off of the inside of St. Cloud goalie Brian Leitza’s stick and trickled past him. After Awada tied the game, Hankinson inadvertently kicked in the game-winning goal with Leitza out of position at the 7:18 mark of the third period. Kraft then added the finishing touches on the victory by dumping in an unassisted open netter from his own blue line with 40 seconds to go after the Huskies pulled Leitza for an extra skater.
While the Gophers made the most of their chances, St. Cloud State was unable to come up with as many big plays at opportune times.
“I think our players played as hard as they could,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. “We had a lot of chances — we just couldn’t get the puck to drop. I can’t ask for any more from my players. They played hard, and they played smart. I told them after the game, `Sometimes you can do it and you don’t win.'”
Minnesota also trailed 2-1 during the first period of Friday’s game at the National Hockey Center before scoring five unanswered goals on its way to the team’s first road victory in four months.
While it may not have come the conventional way, the Gophers’ weekend sweep of St. Cloud State avenged Minnesota’s earlier losses to the Huskies and has provided the team with hope for the playoffs — a hope that might not have been there if the Gophers had not received some breaks in their final two games of the regular season.
“We didn’t have any luck the first two games we played them,” Woog said. “We got kind of fortunate this weekend.”
SCORING SUMMARIESFriday’s gameGophers 2 2 2 — 6SCSU 2 0 0 — 2FIRST PERIOD: Min — Berg (N. Miller, Lyons), 3:43. SCSU — Goulet (Noga, McLaughlin) SHG, 13:11. SCSU — Awada (Frisch), 15:15. Min — Spehar (Hankinson, Kohn) PPG, 19:13.
SECOND PERIOD: Min — Berg (Kraft) PPG, 2:52. Min — Berg (unassisted) SHG, 8:48.
THIRD PERIOD: Min — Kraft (Smith), 10:44. Min — Trebil (Leimbek), 13:55.
SATURDAY’S GAMESCSU 1 1 1 — 3Gophers 0 3 2 — 5
FIRST PERIOD: SCSU — Parrish (Molin, Awada) PPG, 10:50.
SECOND PERIOD: SCSU — Stewart (Awada, Parrish), 4:44. Min — N. Miller (Westrum, J. Godbout), 6:46. Min — Pagel (Miskovich, Hankinson), 9:56. Min — Spehar (Lyons), 14:57.
THIRD PERIOD: SCSU — Awada (Parrish, Molin) PPG, 2:48. Min — Hankinson (Pagel, Spehar), 3:36. Min — Kraft (unassisted) ENG, 19:19.