Gophers close break with historic victory over Sioux

Minnesota fought to tie Friday, but dominated Saturday, 5-1.

by Max Sanders

Despite winning six of seven games during winter break, the Gophers menâÄôs hockey team was still questioned by skeptics. Doubters pointed to MinnesotaâÄôs winter break opponentsâÄô combined record of 19-56-6 as evidence that the Gophers still have plenty to prove against elite competition. Head coach Don LuciaâÄôs squad faced Western Collegiate Hockey Association rival No. 4 North Dakota (12-7-5 overall, 8-7-3 WCHA) in its first true test of the second half of the regular season this weekend, and a solid two-game effort led to a three-point weekend. The series was the first between the teams at Mariucci Arena since February 2008, and early on North Dakota looked poised to continue its dominance over the Gophers (12-10-2 overall, 7-7-2 WCHA), holding an 8-2-2 advantage in the past 12 games against Minnesota. The scoring started with just more than four minutes remaining in the opening period, when North Dakota freshman and Eden Prairie, Minn., native Danny Kristo fired a wrist shot from the left faceoff circle past Gophers goalie Alex Kangas, giving the Sioux the early 1-0 lead. Less than a minute into the second period Minnesota responded. On power play after North DakotaâÄôs Ben Blood was called for holding. Jordan Schroeder, who is back from a gold-medal winning performance with the United States junior hockey team, scored his fifth goal of the season when he fired a slap shot from just outside the right faceoff circle that blazed past Sioux goalie Brad Eidsness, tying the game at 1. âÄúThat was a nice pass from [Zach] Budish out in the corner,âÄù Schroeder said. âÄúI saw a lane and just ripped it.âÄù Less than two minutes later, the Gophers took their first lead of the night. Ryan FlynnâÄôs shot from deep in the North Dakota zone was knocked away by a Sioux defenseman, but Patrick White was free in the slot to put the rebound past Eidsness, giving Minnesota the one-goal lead. Danny KristoâÄôs second goal of the night came with six minutes remaining in the second period, and tied the game at 2-2. When Brad Malone put a deflected puck past Kangas to give the Sioux the 3-2 lead in the third period, it looked like Minnesota was on the verge of another costly loss to the Sioux, but a 5-foot, 8-inch newcomer had other plans. Unable to play until January due to NCAA transfer rules, junior Jacob Cepis had already begun to make his mark, entering the weekend with two goals in four games. He saved the biggest goal of his short Gophers career for Friday night, when he fired a shot through a crowded field with two minutes to go, tying the game at 3-3 and forcing overtime. âÄúI was a little nervous the first two periods; my first WCHA game, my feet were a little shaky,âÄù Cepis said. âÄúI was off a little bit but the coaches said just keep at it, and I had a good third period so I was pretty happy, but I was more happy that the team came back.âÄù Minnesota was forced to play a conservative style of hockey in the extra period after Nick Leddy was called for cross-checking. The GophersâÄô stifling defense only allowed one shot on goal during the extra period, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie, giving each team one point. âÄúWe wanted to come in tonight and get a win, but we battled back in the third with two minutes left to get a point,âÄù Schroeder said. âÄúWeâÄôre going to come in tomorrow night with an attitude and hopefully come out with a win and three points.âÄù The second largest crowd in Mariucci Arena history attended Saturday nightâÄôs game, and they were witnesses to a record-breaking night. With just less than two minutes in the first period, MinnesotaâÄôs Nico Sacchetti took a pass in the slot and fired a shot that hit off the top pipe. The puck bounced out in front of the crease, where freshman Josh Birkholz was there to swat the puck into the net, giving the Gophers the early 1-0 lead. If Minnesota is able to turn around its fortunes in the second half of the season, they will point to SaturdayâÄôs second period as the momentum shifter for the season. The Gophers tallied three unanswered goals in the second period, the first coming when Budish clashed with a Sioux defenseman, knocking the puck over the head of Eidsness, who never saw the puck. The second and third goals of the period made history. After Tony Lucia scored a breakaway goal, Cepis tallied the fourth goal of the night just seven seconds later, breaking the previous record of eight seconds set in 1989 for the quickest two goals in program history. Staked to a four-goal lead, Kangas was stellar, stopping 34 shots en route to his 10th win of the season. âÄúObviously they have had our number the last year and the first series this year,âÄù Kangas said. âÄúSo itâÄôs big to get a win, especially against a team like North Dakota âĦ and to put five [goals] up there is pretty sweet.âÄù The game already out of hand with a 4-0 Gophers lead heading into the final period, the two teamâÄôs exchanged third period goals. Minnesota began the late game exchange when Mike Hoeffel put a shot past Eidsness from the left faceoff circle. North DakotaâÄôs came by way of a Darcy Zajac goal from the slot, making the final score a Gophers 5-1 victory. While quick to acknowledge there is plenty of work left to do to improve their positioning in the airtight WCHA conference standings, Don Lucia was happy with the first conference series of the second half of the season. âÄúIt was a real good effort by our club this weekend,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWeâÄôll take the three points and look forward to St. Cloud next weekend.âÄù The four-goal victory was the largest for the Gophers against the Sioux since a 6-1 win in February of 2008, which was the last time the two teams met in Mariucci. The win more importantly puts Minnesota at an even .500 in conference play at 7-7-2. The Gophers have a home-and-home series against No. 14 St. Cloud State, with FridayâÄôs game being played in St. Cloud and SaturdayâÄôs game at Mariucci.