Gophers split final home WCHA series

Minnesota bounced back Saturday after a poor effort Friday led to a loss.

by Drew Claussen

The Gophers gave fans a view of both of their sides this weekend. They showed they could be a team that makes an early exit from the NCAA tournament or a team that can win it all.

No. 2 Minnesota (22-7-5, 14-7-5 WCHA) rebounded from its worst performance of the season Friday by beating Denver 5-1 on Saturday.

The Pioneers shut out the Gophers 2-0 on Friday. It was the first time Minnesota had failed to score in a game since March 2011.

This weekend also marked the Gophers’ final Western Collegiate Hockey Association series at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota will move to the new Big Ten hockey conference next season. Fans have loudly booed a Big Ten commercial during intermissions the past two weekends at Mariucci.

Nick Bjugstad scored the game-winning goal on the power play Saturday night, culminating a weekend of power-play struggles for the Gophers.

The Gophers went 0-for-5 on the power play Friday and were outshot by the Pioneers 8-2 on Minnesota’s extra man opportunities.

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said he gave his team an “earful” after Friday night’s anemic performance. The team also had an impromptu meeting after the defeat.

“It wasn’t pretty after the game last night,” junior forward Erik Haula said Saturday. “It’s understandable — coaches are going to be on us because they know what we’re capable of.”

The talks seemed to work.

Seeing a different goaltender might have helped, too. After a 33-save shutout Friday, Denver’s Juho Olkinuora watched teammate Sam Brittain give up four goals Saturday from the bench.

Olkinuora has been Denver’s primary goaltender this season, but Brittain had found success against Minnesota in the past.

Brittain’s numbers don’t tell the story of the game as a whole, which was played evenly throughout the first two periods. The junior made numerous big saves until the Gophers broke the game open in the third.

Zach Budish tied the game at 1-1 in the second when he slammed a rebound past a sprawling Brittain. The junior forward had four points in Saturday’s win.

“I was telling the guys, ‘I’m going to lose my mind if we wouldn’t have scored there,’” Haula said. “I had a semi-breakaway before that and kind of an open net — I don’t know how he saved that.”

Bjugstad’s power-play goal put the Gophers up 2-1. Minnesota pounded the nail in Denver’s coffin a couple of minutes later when Justin Holl and Sam Warning scored in quick succession. Budish added an empty-net goal late.

The Gophers have had recent problems following up impressive Friday nights with subpar Saturday ones. They reversed that trend this weekend.

Lucia didn’t hide his anger after Friday’s loss.

“I’m agitated. I’m really disappointed,” Lucia said Friday. “When you get outshot 8-2 on your own power play, that kind of sums it up.”

Fans booed the Gophers a couple of times Friday.

“We’re embarrassed,” Budish said Friday. “We deserved to get booed tonight.”

Denver scored first in both games. Minnesota was able to overcome the deficit Saturday, but it fell 2-0 on Friday when the Pioneers added a late empty-net goal.

The Gophers’ first line of Kyle Rau, Bjugstad and Budish lacked consistency and chemistry Friday and completed passes between the trio were rare.

“They weren’t in the same area code,“ Lucia said. “I thought our [third and fourth lines] had more energy and more effort tonight than our top [line] did.”

Lucia juggled the lines for Saturday’s game.

Bjugstad said Friday’s game could be valuable as a late-season wakeup call.

“Every once in a while we need a reminder,” Bjugstad said Saturday. “We’re college kids, so every once in a while we need a kick in the butt.”

Minnesota wasn’t the only team atop the WCHA that had problems this weekend. Conference leader St. Cloud State split its series, which means the WCHA crown will be decided in the last weekend.

The Gophers trail St. Cloud State by two points and are tied with North Dakota for second place in the conference.

Minnesota will finish the season at Bemidji State. St. Cloud State will travel to Wisconsin, and North Dakota will travel to Minnesota State-Mankato.

Wisconsin and MSU are tied for fourth in the conference, and 11th-place Bemidji State should be the easiest opponent out of the top three.