MINNEAPOLIS — For the past two games, the top-ranked Minnesota men’s hockey team played like a top-ranked team. The Gophers dispensed of then-No. 1 Boston College by an 8-1 final and took care of No. 2 Notre Dame with a 4-1 win on Tuesday.
After performances like that, it seemed all but certain that Minnesota would trounce visiting Alaska-Anchorage, which had as many wins all season (three) as the Gophers had since Christmas. But that wasn’t the case Friday at Mariucci Arena, as Minnesota had to come from behind to turn what would have been a bad loss into an ugly, but important, 4-3 win.
“You’ve got to find a way to win some nights, and tonight we did,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia.
Minnesota was slow out of the gates Friday as the Gophers appeared sluggish in the first period. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they had just played three days earlier, but the Seawolves deserve credit for starting out with a jump in their step. UAA’s Quinn Sproule silenced the Mariucci Arena crowd when he scored just 5:17 into the game, beating Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox between the leg pads.
The Gophers had no answer in the first period as they were outshot 12-8. It certainly wasn’t the type of start expected of a top-ranked team riding high from Tuesday’s victory.
“We always emphasize a 10-minute game, and the first 10 minutes we came out really flat,” said junior Nick Bjugstad. “We got a hard time in the locker room, which we really deserved.”
After Kyle Rau scored on a deflection to tie the game early in the second period, it was Bjugstad who put the Gophers on top with his 11th goal of the season. Bjugstad’s wrister beat Anchorage goalie Rob Gunderson as he buried it in the top corner of the net.
Those pesky Seawolves wouldn’t go away, though. Daniel Naslund scored the equalizer midway through the third period, and teammate Scott Allen put Anchorage back up with 5:47 to play in regulation.
Less than two minutes later, the Gophers were given the gift of a five-minute power play after a major penalty on Anchorage’s Tyler Currier for checking from behind. Currier hit Minnesota captain Zach Budish along the boards and was given a game misconduct.
“I don’t think it’s a five (minute major),” said UAA coach Dave Shiyak. “Was it a penalty? Yes, in today’s day and age. But I don’t think it’s a five. I really don’t. At this level, you watch it at the NHL level, they don’t call those. There’s checking in the game. It was tough for him to hold up. I’ll take the two minute penalty, but I don’t think it was a warranted five.”
With 4:08 left in the game and a man advantage, the Gophers knew they had a prime opportunity to get back into the game.
“We all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, it’s time to go here,” Bjugstad said.
They did just that, as Bjugstad scored his second goal of the night and team-leading 12th of the season to tie it at 3-3 with 3:11 to play. Still on the power play, Minnesota went ahead with 51 seconds remaining as Ben Marshall’s slap shot trickled past Gunderson.
For the sophomore defenseman Marshall, the goal was just his fourth of the season but his second game-winner.
“It was a good feeling,” said Marshall. “We found a way to win. That’s what coach stresses to us during the game. There are games during the season you’re going to have to find a way. That was one of those games tonight.”
With the win, Minnesota improves to 15-3-3 on the year and 7-3-3 in the WCHA. The Gophers will have a chance Saturday to earn their first WCHA sweep of the season, something that eluded them in their previous six conference series this year.
Friday night’s game might not have been the most convincing of victories, but the Gophers seized the opportunity to eke out a win.
“That’s the best team in the country,” Shiyak said. “They’re the best team in the country for a reason.”