Columbus, OH – Three weeks ago, the sky started to fall.
Gopher captain and Mike Richter-winning goalie Jack LaFontaine signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, and with the NHL pulling out of the Olympics, the University of Minnesota hockey team was set to lose three of its best players to the US Olympic team over the crucial final month of the Big Ten regular season.
The rumors of this team’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Over the last three weekends, a disappointing split versus Alaska-Fairbanks was followed by a home sweep of the Michigan State Spartans. Then, the Gophers (17RW, 9RL, 2OTW, 2OTL Overall, 13-4-1-2 B1G) put together their most complete performance of the season, going on the road to sweep the #8 Ohio State Buckeyes (18-8-3-1, 12-6-2-2) in 3-2 and 5-1 contests.
The wins help Minnesota keep pace with league-leading Michigan, who had a sweep of their own this weekend against MSU. The Gophers sit at 43 league points, just two points back of the Wolverines. Minnesota is now one point ahead of the Buckeyes, who have 42 points to their names. Ohio State has just one series left to play at Michigan next weekend, before getting the weekend prior to the conferene tournament off. Michigan hosts Ohio State and then travels to Notre Dame, while the Gophers are at Penn State next weekend and then host Wisconsin in the final weekend of the regular season.
The victories also have moved the Gophers up to 5th place in the Pairwise rankings, just one spot away from a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament if the season were to end today.
The weekend series against Ohio State was a coming-out party for Minnesota’s freshmen. First-year players scored all three Gopher goals in Friday’s 3-2 win, with Chaz Lucius and Tristan Broz each scoring in the last three minutes of the first period to turn an early 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead after 1.
Aaron Huglen scored Minnesota’s final goal of the game with just under five minutes left in the second period to increase the Gopher lead to two at 3-1. Each member of the newly formed Lucius-Huglen-Rhett Pitlick line tallied two points on the night.
Ohio State scored an early breakaway goal in the third period to make it a one-goal game, but Minnesota’s stout defense held strong, and Justen Close was solid in net once again to lead the Gophers to a big road victory.
As impressive as Friday’s win was for Minnesota, Saturday’s game was perhaps their best performance of the season. It is difficult to win two games in a row in college hockey, especially on the road. The Gophers are the proof of that argument, having split nine series on the year. Saturday night, though, Minnesota came out firing, with Blake McLaughlin scoring in the first minute of the game to set the tone. Ohio State scored on an awful Sammy Walker turnover late in the period to tie the game at 1-1, and it could have been a turning point in the game. A few minutes later, though, Mason Nevers scored on the power play to retake the lead, and Walker made amends by scoring a goal of his own in the last minute of the period to give the Gophers a commanding 3-1 edge after the first.
Rhett Pitlick was the assist man Friday, but he got his goals Saturday, scoring once in the second and once in the third for his first two-goal game (only the second and third Gopher goals of his career) to put the Gophers up 5-1. Minnesota’s Grant Cruikshank actually scored a sixth goal in the final few minutes of the game, but it was called back as OSU successfully challenged for a Ben Brinkman slewfoot major behind the play. Chaz Lucius was ejected for a facemasking penalty late in the third as well – we’ll have to see whether any supplementary discipline will be handed out by the Big Ten that could impact either players’ chances of playing in next Friday’s series opener in State College. To this writer’s eye, the calls were soft to begin with, and I’d be surprised not to see Brinkman and Lucius on the bench next Friday.
Minnesota’s Blake McLaughlin had two points Saturday, raising his Gopher total to 99. One more point and he’ll join the elite group of players to have hit the century mark. His linemate Walker got to 100 points earlier this season. McLaughlin is one of the hardest working players on the team, and his pond-hockey passing and tenacious forechecking has been a joy to watch these last four seasons. I personally will be glad to see him get to 100; players like McLaughlin are exactly what Gopher Hockey should be.
Coach Bob Motzko indicated that Jaxon Nelson may be back from injury next weekend as well, and his addition would be a boon to a team that has been rolling three lines when the going gets tough. Nelson’s size and smarts should drop into the third or fourth lines nicely.
As mentioned, the Gophers next face off against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Friday’s game is a 5:30 Central Time start, while Saturday is a 5PM faceoff. Both games can be seen / heard on their usual channels, on TV / streaming on BTN and on the radio at AM1130 / FM 103.5