For a split-second Saturday, the crowd at Mariucci Arena was hushed. In the closing seconds of the third period, after holding North Dakota to one goal on only 14 shots, it appeared that the third period had again gotten the best of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.
Forward Brady Murray banged in what appeared to be the tying goal as the Sioux attacked the Gophers’ net with their goaltender pulled.
But all eyes turned to referee Derek Shepherd, who waived off the goal in favor of a high-sticking penalty.
Then Mariucci erupted.
The 2-1 victory gave No. 5 Minnesota (14-9-3, 9-8-1 WCHA) a series split against top-ranked North Dakota (18-3-2, 12-2-2) – snapping the Sioux’s 14-game unbeaten streak and gaining a hard-earned boost into the home stretch of the WCHA season.
“The bottom line is we won the game by how well we played defensively,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “We gave up 40 shots all weekend long against the top offensive team in the nation.”
The Gophers took a period to get going Saturday. The Sioux out-shot Minnesota 7-5 in the first period and carried a 1-0 lead to the locker room.
Lucia didn’t think his players were giving the kind of effort it takes to bring down their rival, and expressed that in a pep talk between periods.
It must have worked.
The second period was all Minnesota, as the Gophers out-shot North Dakota 15-4 and as Sioux coach Dean Blais put it, just wouldn’t let them have the puck.
Minnesota got on the scoreboard three minutes into the period, as freshman Danny Irmen skated in front of the goal and after taking a big whiff at the puck, backhanded it into the net.
“I tried to shoot it, and the puck bounced on me,” Irmen said. “Luckily it came down in the right spot and I saw the goalie was out of place, so I put it in the net.”
Irmen was one of several Gophers receiving Lucia’s praise as they played what he called their best defensive game of the season.
Another was forward Matt Koalska, who netted the game-winner later in the second period on a feed from Troy Riddle.
The senior was back to his chattery self Saturday, after the 4-2 loss Friday took the wind out of his sails.
“We were a little crushed last night,” Koalska said. “We started flat the first few shifts (Saturday), but all it took was a little kick in the butt at the intermission.”
In Friday’s loss, the Gophers relinquished a 2-1 lead in third period by allowing three Sioux goals out of the six shots they mustered.
Goaltender Kellen Briggs had help from his teammates Saturday, as they limited the Sioux to seven shots in the last two periods.
Briggs was not surprised the battle of two top offensive teams would turn into a defensive battle.
“We had to keep it that way to keep it close,” Briggs said. “We deserved it.”
Blais took Saturday’s loss in stride. After sweeping Michigan Tech on the road the week before, he said that he was not disappointed with a split in Minnesota.
“We are still in a good position to win the league,” Blais said. “We wanted to win three out of four on the road, and this was just a great weekend of hockey. It was do or die for Minnesota, and they did what they needed to do to win.”