MINNEAPOLIS — On Hockey Day Minnesota, it was a Missouri native giving the Gophers a big lift.
Minnesota forward Sam Warning scored a natural hat trick to propel Minnesota to a 4-2 win over Ohio State. Despite a roster filled with almost all Minnesotans, it was the kid from the Show Me State who showed the fans at Mariucci Arena a nice offensive display.
"He’s a Gopher," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "It doesn’t matter where you’re from."
Warning’s first of three goals came just 24 seconds after Ohio State took a 2-0 lead in the first period. Warning tipped a pass from Mike Reilly to put Minnesota on the board and stop the Buckeyes’ momentum. Thanks to Warning’s goal, the Gophers trailed by only a goal at the first intermission.
Just as Ohio State seemed to garner some momentum, Warning was there to thwart it.
"That’s great, because 2-0, the momentum’s on their side," said forward Nate Condon, who assisted on Warning’s first two goals. "Any time you get it back on your side like that and take the wind out of their sails, that’s huge. We did a good job responding there with a goal."
From there, the Chesterfield, Mo., native took over in the second period. He skated through the crease and buried a centering pass from his linemate Condon to even the game at 2-2 just 1:34 into the second. Seven minutes later, Warning scored his third goal of the game and 10th of the season. With Minnesota on the power play, Warning found a loose puck in front of the net and rifled it past Buckeyes goalie Christian Frey.
It was the team’s first natural hat trick since Oct. 9, 2010, when Jay Barriball accomplished the rare feat. Minnesota’s last hat trick of any kind came last season — just over a year ago, in fact — when Kyle Rau scored three goals on Jan. 12, 2013. After Warning’s third goal found its way past Frey, several Gophers fans threw their hats onto the ice.
Much to Warning’s dismay, he didn’t get to keep the hats.
"I wish," Warning said. "There were a couple good ones on the ice."
Warning insisted he wasn’t thinking about netting a hat trick after he scored his second goal. At the time, all the Gophers junior was more worried about was the score, which at that time was a 2-2 tie. Even when his hat trick gave Minnesota the lead, Warning couldn’t rest easy.
It wasn’t until Seth Ambroz found the net for his 10th goal of the year — joining Warning in the 10-goal club — that the Gophers could breathe a little bit with a two-goal advantage. Goalie Adam Wilcox settled down in net after a shaky first period and stopped 25 shots to help the Gophers earn the sweep.
Saturday’s game came one night after the same two teams played outdoors in the elements at TCF Bank Stadium as part of the Hockey City Classic. The Gophers won that low-scoring game by a 1-0 final thanks to a goal by Taylor Cammarata.
It was evident that Saturday’s contest was going to be much different than Friday’s game. Being back indoors, both teams took advantage of better ice conditions. The pace of the game was much quicker, and scoring chances were far more frequent.
"I thought there’d be some more plays made tonight," Lucia said. "Obviously when you’ve got a cleaner sheet of ice to work with and also guys that can make some plays on both ends, I thought there would be a few more scoring chances tonight — and there was."
No one made more of their scoring chances than Warning, who thrived in front of the Ohio State net. All three of his goals came within close proximity to the crease, and all three were huge for Minnesota.
The Gophers have had a balanced scoring attack all season, as no player had double-digit goals until Saturday’s win. Warning achieved that 10-goal plateau in impressive fashion.
"All of a sudden he’s got five in the last couple of weekends," Lucia said of Warning, who scored two on Monday against Penn State. "He can be a little bit of a streaky player from an offensive standpoint, but he scored some goals around the blue paint, which is something we talked about. . . . Hockey, like all sports, is a game of confidence. When you feel good about yourself, you usually play better."
After his first career hat trick, Warning certainly has to be feeling good. But he wasn’t concerned so much with his three goals as he was with the three points his team earned in the standings.
"It was a pretty special moment," Warning said. "I tried to put that in the back of my mind and go out there and keep producing."