Jay Barriball missed Minnesota’s final 32 games last season with a left knee injury. With the way he’s started 2010, it’s safe to say the Gophers missed him too.
Barriball followed a goal and an assist Friday night with a hat trick Saturday in Minnesota’s two-game sweep of Massachusetts. The senior captain scored the Gophers’ first goal of the season and a trio in the first period Saturday, including two top-shelf one-timers from left of the net.
Not a bad way to make up for lost time.
“After sitting out for that long … you want to get off to a good start and get that confidence back,” Barriball said Saturday after his hat trick.
Neither win – 5-3 Friday and 5-4 Saturday – was particularly pretty, but then, that would be splitting hairs. It’s a monumental improvement over the 4-0 loss and 3-3 tie Minnesota started the regular season with one year ago at North Dakota. The Gophers got to the net and scored on the power play, two things they struggled to do for most of last season.
“Last year was terrible,” Barriball said. “We got off to a real slow start, and it kind of stuck with us for a few weeks and we had to battle out of it.”
There’s no need to battle this time. Instead Minnesota rides the momentum of an early season sweep toward conference play and a herd of national championship contenders. To be ready for that, however, head coach Don Lucia said there’s plenty to do next week leading up to the Gophers’ series against new WCHA arrival Nebraska-Omaha.
To begin with, there’s discipline, the lack of which freshman Nick Bjugstad personified less than four minutes into Friday’s game. The 6-foot-4-inch center received a five-minute major and game misconduct penalty for checking a Massachusetts skater from behind. By the end of the weekend, Minnesota had spent 43 minutes in the box, 27 on Friday alone.
“We have to stay out of the box,” Lucia said Friday after the Minutemen scored two power- play goals. “We can’t play that much of a game shorthanded.”
The Gophers played shorthanded less often Saturday and shut out Massachusetts on the power play, but both nights, Minnesota found itself clinging to leads late in the third period after Minutemen left-winger T.J. Syner narrowed the margin to a single goal.
On Friday, sophomore Zach Budish, who had a three-point night, was able to ice the game with an empty-netter; Saturday, the Gophers barely spurned Massachusetts’ frantic last-minute attack.
It was somewhat surprising that either game, especially Saturday’s, turned into the nail-biter that it did. All indicators suggested a blowout after Barriball’s first-period magic, but Massachusetts seized on a complacent Minnesota team and stormed back with three goals in the second. If not for senior Jacob Cepis’ breakaway goal, the game might have been tied heading to the third.
“That’s how games go sometimes,” Cepis said. “You’re not going to be able to blow everyone out of the water.
“They’re playing even harder to get back in the game … obviously we would have liked that not to happen, but it did, and at the end of the day, we played good enough in the third period to win a game.”
Specifically, junior goaltender Kent Patterson – who shared the net this weekend with Alex Kangas – made 16 saves in the final period, and junior Nico Sacchetti scored his first goal of the season, which proved to be the game winner.
“We need to score one more goal a game [this season],” Lucia said. “I think that’s an area we have a chance to be a little bit better this year. I think if we can score that one more goal a game, it’s going to have a major impact on our season.”
So far so good.