In one of its more strenuous tests early this season, Minnesota battled highs and lows to split with Nebraska-Omaha over the weekend.
The Gophers opened their last-ever conference series against the Mavericks by losing 3-2 on Friday. Minnesota rebounded for a 3-2 victory Saturday.
The Gophers came out with a chip on their shoulder after Friday night’s poor effort, won the opening faceoff and held offensive possession for the first minute of the contest.
“We actually had really good energy out here in the hallway before we went out there,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said after Saturday’s game. “You could just kind of tell that the guys were ready to roll tonight.”
Minnesota’s offensive pressure led to an Omaha penalty one minute into the game. The Gophers capitalized.
Junior forward Erik Haula notched his seventh goal of the season on a bizarre play. Defenseman Ben Marshall passed the puck to forward Kyle Rau and then sprinted to the bench, even though Minnesota had possession in its offensive zone. Haula replaced Marshall on the ice and received a pass from defenseman Mike Reilly for the game’s opening goal.
“We wanted to come out hard on Saturday,” Haula said. “Losing on a Friday with home ice doesn’t feel good.”
In the second period, the Gophers notched two goals in quick succession to pad their lead.
Junior forward Nick Bjugstad scored from the left circle 58 seconds into the second period on a power play, beating Mavericks goalie John Faulkner.
Just 84 seconds later, sophomore forward Christian Isackson stole the puck in the Gophers’ offensive zone and passed it to junior forward Nate Condon. Then Condon found junior forward Tom Serratore, who displayed some nice moves to beat Faulkner and make it 3-0.
Omaha scored late in the second and third periods to cut the lead to 3-2, but it couldn’t complete the comeback.
Omaha head coach Dean Blais said he thought the Gophers were on their way to scoring seven goals after their hot start.
“[The Gophers] were moving pretty good, and we knew that was going to happen,” Blais said.
Faulkner kept the game from becoming a blowout in the first period with numerous saves.
Head coach Don Lucia made several changes to his line chart from Friday to Saturday night. He moved Condon from the fourth line to the first and moved Isackson from the first line to the fourth. Mark Alt was also scratched from Saturday’s contest.
“I think that [Alt] can play better than what he had,” Lucia said. “He’s a good player, and we felt that, for him, it would be good just to sit and watch one game up top.”
As the game progressed Saturday, the lines changed even more, as evidenced by Condon’s assist on Serratore’s goal. The two players didn’t start the game on the same line.
Saturday’s game was the opposite of Friday’s performance. The Gophers had 33 shots on Faulkner compared to 21 the night before. Minnesota also looked flat in Friday’s game, which resembled its play during a loss earlier this season at Michigan Tech.
“For whatever reason, last night was one of those games where they didn’t seem to have their legs and then they didn’t have their mind,” Lucia said after Saturday’s game. “You’re trying to play hard, but sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets, and that seemed to be us last night.”
Minnesota owned a 2-1 lead after goals by junior forward Zach Budish and Isackson. Minnesota outshot the Mavericks 10-6 in the period.
The final 40 minutes weren’t as pretty.
Omaha tied the game 11:51 into the second period when 6-foot-7-inch defenseman Jaycob Megna streaked in from the point on a power play and buried a pass from Ryan Walters.
The score remained tied after the second period, but Omaha had captured the momentum, and Minnesota managed only four shots on goal during the period.
Schmidt said getting only seven shots on goal in the final 36 minutes means the team isn’t producing.
“[We’re] just not getting the puck up behind the defensemen like we talked about in our game plan — we didn’t execute it,” he said.
The normally cheerful Schmidt was noticeably distraught following Friday’s game.
Walters struck again in the third period when he picked off an awful pass by Budish in the Gophers’ defensive zone and made a great drop pass to forward Josh Archibald, who deposited the puck blocker-side on Wilcox.
“Terrible turnover by me,” Budish said. “Give it to their two hottest players, and they made no mistake about putting it in the back of the net.”
The most offense the Gophers generated in the final two periods came with 60 seconds left in the game, but Faulkner denied all attempts at a game-tying goal.
Lucia said the Gophers had 50 turnovers and 17 hits Friday.
“That’s not a very good recipe for winning hockey games,” he said.
Schmidt said they’d like to flip-flop those numbers.
But Lucia said he didn’t need to emphasize the problem with a veteran team like the Gophers.