Gophers post resounding bounce-back win

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers coach Don Lucia had an earful for his team after they were blanked Friday against Denver. His players said they were embarrassed with their effort, which resulted in the home fans booing them.

One night later, the Gophers were singing a much different tune.

Minnesota responded from Friday’s 2-0 loss with a 5-1 win Saturday at Mariucci Arena. That made the Gophers coach much happier following Saturday’s effort than he was 24 hours earlier.

“I just like the way they played,” Lucia said. “I thought it was a much better game, in reality, on both sides tonight than last night. There was more energy to the game.”

From the get-go, the Gophers came out of the gates with much higher sense of urgency than they did one night earlier. Minnesota had just four shots in the first period of Friday’s game. Saturday, the Gophers fired 15 shots on Pioneers goalie Sam Brittain in the opening period.

Minnesota trailed 1-0 after one, but not for a lack of effort. In Friday’s loss, Lucia said it would have been a different story if the effort was there but the execution wasn’t.

“From the start, I think our guys came out and played with the effort that you have to have to beat a good team,” Lucia said. “I felt tonight was like a playoff game. From start to finish, it was hard-fought.”

Down 1-0 in the second period, the Gophers got on the board for the first time in the series when captain Zach Budish pushed a loose puck over the goal line for his 11th tally of the season. Budish’s goal at the 9:03 mark of the second period snapped Minnesota’s scoreless drought that lasted 107:38, dating back to the third period of last Saturday’s game against Minnesota-Duluth.

It was a sigh of relief as the Gophers finally broke through, and it came via a new-look line for Budish. Lucia changed his lines — twice, actually — prior to Saturday’s game. All four lines and all three defensive pairings were different from the ones Minnesota rolled out in Friday’s loss.

The Gophers needed something, anything, to spark the offense. New lines seemed to do the trick as Budish — who played on the first line Friday and the second line Saturday — found the net.

“I had it set up and then I kind of wanted to go back to where we were earlier in the year and give us a little bit more balance,” Lucia said of the line changes. “I like it when we have a team that I feel comfortable playing three lines against anybody. With our grouping tonight, I did.

Still, for as well as the Gophers played from the opening faceoff, it wasn’t until midway through the third period when they finally took their first lead of the weekend. Junior forward Nick Bjugstad’s one-timer from Erik Haula made it a 2-1 game and was Minnesota’s first goal on the power play this weekend. Friday, the Gophers had just two total shots on five power plays. Bjugstad’s goal was Minnesota’s first power play shot of Saturday’s game.

The floodgates opened from there, as if Bjugstad’s goal alleviated the tension Minnesota had felt from the previous offensive struggles — and power play woes — of the weekend.

“Our power play was struggling all last night and all tonight,” Bjugstad said. “Thank God we got it in. Erik made a great pass to me.”

Bjugstad’s goal got things rolling for Minnesota. Justin Holl netted his second goal of the season less than three minutes after Bjugstad’s to make it a 3-1 game. Sam Warning followed that up with his eighth of the year to put Minnesota up 4-1 at the 13:44 mark.

For as inept as the Gophers’ offense was Friday, Minnesota finally had its offensive breakthrough in the final half of the third period. There would be no postgame rant following Saturday’s win.

“It wasn’t pretty last night after the game, obviously. We didn’t play like we were supposed to. We didn’t have the effort like we should,” Haula said. “It’s understandable. Coaches are going to be on us because they know what we’re capable of. I think today was a great effort.”

When the Gophers stepped off the ice following their 5-1 win, they took a peek at the WCHA standings to find themselves just two points back of first-place St. Cloud State with two games remaining. The Huskies lost to Michigan Tech on Saturday, meaning they’re stuck at 35 points. Minnesota and North Dakota are now tied for second with 33 points each.

This wasn’t lost on the Gophers, especially when the St. Cloud State score was announced on the PA system at Mariucci Arena. Despite Friday’s ugly loss, Minnesota still has a shot to win the WCHA when it heads to Bemidji State next weekend.

“You hope you get some help, but unless we take care of what we need to do, it doesn’t matter,” Lucia said. “The guys knew that we’re not that far out of first. But you know what? There are some teams in the rear view mirror that are right there, too. Now a bunch of teams are going to head on the road next weekend and somebody will win it.”

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