Gophers sluggish following holiday break, lose to Merrimack

Minnesota struggled in its opening game of the Mariucci Classic on Friday night, falling, 3-2, to visiting Merrimack.

MINNEAPOLIS — It had been roughly a month and a half since the Gophers played a home game at Mariucci Arena.

Friday against Merrimack, some of that rust was evident.

Minnesota struggled in its opening game of the Mariucci Classic, falling 3-2 to the Warriors. As a result, the Gophers will play in the third-place game Saturday against RIT, which lost to UMass-Lowell earlier Friday.

It’s the second straight year that Minnesota lost the opener of its home tournament after losing to Colgate in last year’s Mariucci Classic. Friday’s loss dropped the Gophers to 9-5-1 on the season and 2-4-1 in their last seven games.

"We just couldn’t score," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. "They played well. They blocked shots. They were opportunistic, like we anticipated they would be. It’s not easy to win if you only get to two (goals) on a night."

The Gophers dominated in total shots on goal, outshooting Merrimack by a 42-17 margin. But Minnesota ran into a hot goaltender as Warriors netminder Rasmus Tirronen stopped 40 of those 42 shots to earn the win.

Perhaps the biggest save of the night for Tirronen came late in the first period. At the time, both teams were knotted at 1-all after Merrimack’s Hampus Gustafsson scored to answer an earlier goal from Minnesota defenseman Michael Brodzinski. Gophers forward Justin Kloos secured a rebound and appeared to have a wide open net to shoot at, but Tirronen dove across the crease and robbed Kloos of what would have been his eighth goal of the season.

Players on Minnesota’s bench thought they had taken a 2-1 lead, as did some fans in the stands. It was just that kind of a night for the Gophers, though, who simply didn’t have an answer for Tirronen.

"We’re sitting on the bench celebrating, and all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh, crap,’" said Gophers forward Connor Reilly, who scored midway through the third period to cut the deficit to 3-2. "That was a big-time save. Give the guy credit."

After Kloos was robbed late in the first period, Merrimack scored two goals in the second to take a 3-1 lead. Jace Hennig slipped the puck past Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox for the go-ahead goal, and Brett Seney made a nice move on Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly to find the net for his seventh goal of the season.

The Gophers came out with plenty of energy in the third period, but Reilly’s tally at the 8:50 mark was all Minnesota had in store in the final frame. There were several scrums and a few quality scoring chances in front of the Merrimack net. However, Tirronen stood tall as he made 18 of his 40 saves in the third period.

"I think we just ran into a hot goalie right out of the break," said Gophers forward A.J. Michaelson. "He made a few saves that we should have scored on."

Minnesota had spent some of the season as the No. 1 team in the country, but its recent stretch dropped the Gophers to No. 8 heading into the weekend. Merrimack entered the tournament ranked 18th and improved to 11-5-2 with the win.

The Warriors boasted one of the nation’s top penalty kills (third in Division 1), and that was on display Friday. The Gophers went 0 for 4 on the power play, with all four chances coming in the second period. Minnesota also had an extra attacker late in the game when Wilcox was pulled in the final minute of the third period but still couldn’t score the equalizer.

As a result, Merrimack has a date with UMass-Lowell on Saturday in the Mariucci Classic title game.

"I told the guys in the locker room that it probably wasn’t a Picasso," Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said of the win. "And then I thought about the Picassos I’ve seen with the ears and eyes all over. Maybe it was a Picasso."

The Gophers, meanwhile, continue to search for answers after their long layoff. Minnesota might get forward Hudson Fasching and defenseman Ryan Collins back in the lineup on Saturday as the duo returns from the World Junior Championships in Toronto.

It’s been nearly a month since Minnesota won a game due to the holiday break. The Gophers would love to get back on track Saturday against RIT.

"We want to start playing to our abilities and play the way we want to play," Connor Reilly said. "Obviously winning is very important, but at the end of the day, we want to play our game. We want to control the play. We want to play fast, hard, and we really want to compete our tails off."

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