Minnesota enjoys memorable Hockey City Classic win over Ohio State
MINNEAPOLIS — The cold was definitely more bearable when the end result was a win.
One year after falling in the first inaugural Hockey City Classic, the Gophers men’s hockey team hosted the event at TCF Bank Stadium, home to the University of Minnesota’s football team. Thanks to a goal by freshman Taylor Cammarata, the Gophers capped Friday’s festivities with a 1-0 victory over Ohio State — even despite the single-digit temperatures.
"Especially when you win, it’s a smashing success," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. "It seemed like everybody had a good time."
That included Minnesota’s players, who were reminded of their days as youth hockey players skating on outdoor rinks. Even though the temperature dipped to five degrees by the time the puck dropped for Friday’s game, the Gophers said the weather didn’t play much of a factor.
Both teams had heated benches, and many players wore extra layers to keep warm. Minnesota had the added advantage of playing in front of 45,021 fans, which helped distract the Gophers from the elements.
"Obviously, when you have 45,000 people cheering for you, you’re not really going to notice much else," said Gophers captain Nate Condon. "It was pretty nice once you got out there and moving around, got a good sweat going. They did a great job with getting the heated benches and really taking care of the players here. Nothing to complain about from the players’ standpoint."
When the Gophers played in this same event last year at Soldier Field in Chicago, the ice seemed to impact the game. The playing surface was subjected to hours of direct sunlight, which made for a somewhat slushy playing surface. The end result was a loss for Minnesota against rival Wisconsin. While the players heralded last year’s Hockey City Classic as a memorable event, a bit of the luster was taken away with the loss.
That’s why Minnesota’s emphasis for this year’s game was to tune out the distractions and focus on winning the game and earning the three important points in the Big Ten standings. After a game on Monday at Penn State, the Gophers didn’t practice again until Wednesday and opted to do so indoors. It wasn’t until Thursday that the players first skated on the outdoor rink at TCF Bank Stadium, across the street from their normal home at Mariucci Arena.
Prior to Friday night’s game, Minnesota’s women’s team hosted Minnesota State. The top-ranked Gophers women opened up the doubleheader of outdoor games with a 4-0 win over the Mavericks. That set the stage for the top-ranked men’s team to follow suit.
When the Gophers walked out of the tunnel in the corner of the stadium minutes before the opening faceoff, they were greeted by cheers from thousands of fans in a scene reminiscent of a football Saturday — only about 40 degrees colder.
"That was pretty special. It felt like the football team out there when they get the huge crowd out there," said goalie Adam Wilcox, who stopped 21 shots in the shutout effort. "It was awesome to have that. I know the whole team was excited to have that many fans here. I got lucky to be the goalie so I got to go out first. . . . That was pretty awesome. There’s not a feeling like that."
Once the puck dropped, all the distractions were cast aside as the Gophers and Buckeyes squared off for the first time this year. Ohio State had a prime scoring chance in the first period when forward Ryan Dzingel found an opening and started a shorthanded breakaway. His shot was stopped by Wilcox, who kept the game scoreless.
For Dzingel, who has 13 goals this year, that missed opportunity will haunt him.
"He obviously made a good save," Dzingel said. "I’ll probably not be sleeping too well after that one."
After the scoreless first period, Cammarata put the Gophers on the board with what would prove to be the game’s only goal. He poked a loose puck toward the Ohio State net. As Buckeyes goalie Matt Tomkins reached back to stop the puck from crossing the goal line, he knocked it in at the 4:20 mark of the second period.
Cammarata was credited with the goal, his fifth of the year, while Kyle Rau and Justin Holl had the assists. Given the way things unfolded in the elements, Minnesota knew it could be a low-scoring affair. The Gophers didn’t know at that point, though, that one goal would be enough. But Wilcox needed to make just five saves in the third period to preserve the shutout, ending Minnesota’s second Hockey City Classic experience with a winning feeling.
"Having that many people cheering for us is something I’ll always remember," Condon said. "I talked to my family coming into the game about how cold it was going to be and how it might be an empty building in the third period. But everyone stuck it out. We had some great fans there tonight. I think that’s something I’ll take away from it."
Friday’s game marked the first time a major Minnesota hockey team hosted an outdoor game in the modern era. In recent years, many fans have been clamoring for the Minnesota Wild to play an NHL game outdoors in the Twin Cities — possibly at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.
Now that the Gophers have played two outdoor games in as many years, Lucia said his team will wait a bit before returning to the elements again. They’re hoping to pass the torch on to their neighbors in St. Paul.
"This is something that it is special to be a part of it, but I think you can do it too much," Lucia said. "Quite frankly, the next team that deserves to play this game is the Wild. I think that our fans would really embrace that."
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