Gophers restore order with weekend sweep
MINNEAPOLIS — Entering the weekend series against Alaska-Anchorage, the Minnesota men's hockey team was the No. 1 team in the nation but was sixth in the WCHA standings. It was a testament to the Gophers' success in non-conference play and some early struggles against conference foes.
Thanks to a hat trick by sophomore Kyle Rau, Minnesota dispensed of the Seawolves by a 7-1 final Saturday to earn a sweep of visiting Alaska-Anchorage. It was the Gophers' first WCHA sweep this season as they picked up four points on the weekend.
"It was a crucial weekend for us to get a couple points to make sure that heading into this next weekend we have a little momentum," said junior defenseman Nate Schmidt, who had four assists in Saturday's win.
One night after Minnesota had to rally for a 4-3 win, Saturday's victory came without the Gophers having to break a sweat. Minnesota took a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Seth Ambroz and Rau. The Gophers later led 4-1 after two periods, with Rau getting his second goal of the night on a backhander that snuck through the legs of UAA goalie Rob Gunderson.
The Gophers weren't done scoring, adding three more in the third period to pour salt into the Seawolves' wounds. The first of those three third-period goals was Rau's third goal of the night, his first career hat trick at Minnesota.
"It was pretty cool. My first one here at college, so it's something I'll always remember," Rau said. "It was a fun game for us. We tried to get the goalie to move side to side. That's what happened on two of my goals there."
This weekend's series was Minnesota's seventh conference series of the year, but the Gophers were previously 6-3-3 against WCHA opponents prior to Friday. Minnesota stumbled in several Friday night games in conference play, losing the first game at Michigan Tech and tying Wisconsin at home in November.
With Friday's 4-3 win in hand, the Gophers had a chance for their first sweep. And as time wound down in the final minutes of the third period, the "Sweep!" chant echoed from Minnesota's student section as the Gophers closed out their second victory of the weekend.
"We had the wins and ties on weekends, so we did a lot of good things that first half," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. "We're sitting in decent position, especially overall. We just want to continue to work to get better."
It's scary to think that Minnesota can get better. The Gophers are now in the middle of an eight-game unbeaten streak and have won their last five. Their top line of Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Christian Isackson produced in a big way this weekend. And goalie Adam Wilcox improved to 15-2-3 on the year after stopping 10 Seawolves shots in Saturday's finale.
But as good as the Gophers have played as of late, winning the upcoming conference games is what's important at this juncture of the year as Minnesota attempts to climb up the standings.
"Some of that has to do with games and how many you've played, but we've got a good league," Lucia said. "The only downside is I wish our league would have done a little bit better in non-conference than what they did overall. That affects everybody when you play each other. But it doesn't matter who we play. It showed last night, we probably stole a win on Friday night. You've got to come to play every night to give yourself a chance to win."
Minnesota's next chance to climb in the WCHA standings comes next weekend when rival North Dakota comes to town. UND is currently ahead of the Gophers in the standings and will be playing at Mariucci Arena for the last time in several years as Minnesota prepares to move to the Big Ten Conference next year.
"Rivalry weekend, it doesn't get much better than that," Rau said. "We're ready to go."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.