For a game that ended with a six goal differential, Saturday's contest between Alaska-Anchorage (3-13-4, 1-12-3 WCHA) and Minnesota (16-3-3, 8-3-3 WCHA) was close for 39 minutes.
And then the Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) show began.
The sophomore forward, who leads the Gophers with 13 goals, scored two goals in a span of 6 minutes to record his first collegiate hat trick and break open a close game into a 7-1 Minnesota win for the team's first WCHA sweep. Rau's goals overshadowed a four assist night by junior defenseman Nate Schmidt, who assisted on goals by four different Minnesota forwards.
"We weren't sharp and we didn't have any legs," Alaska-Anchorage head coach Dave Shyiak said.
After giving up the first 7 shots Friday and trailing twice, the top-ranked Gophers got off to a much better start. The team out-shot Alaska-Anchorage 12-2 in the first period, peppering Seawolves goalie Rob Gunderson with shots. Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Rau both took advantage of the shot disparity, with the two sophomores scoring their 7th and 11th goals, respectively, to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead after twenty.
"They came out really hard last night and caught us off guard. We wanted to make sure to eliminate those surprises early," said Schmidt. "Trying to eliminate their momentum, their speed early and just make sure we get the puck in and take over the game."
"Our guys came out and played much better and dominated the first period,"Gophers head coach Don Lucia added.
It was Alaska-Anchorage, however, who came out strong early in the second. Junior forward Matt Bailey scored his fourth goal of the season, and the Seawolves cut the lead to 2-1 only 36 seconds into the second period. Bailey's goal occurred following a backhand shot by linemate Kory Roy and gave UAA a way back in the game.
Unfortunately that was as close as the Seawolves got.
Sam Warning, who had three assists Saturday, made up for a whiffed shot earlier in his shift by dishing the puck to a wide-open Zach Budish (Nashville Predators). The redshirt junior took care of the rest and made it 3-1 Minnesota with 10:31 left in the second.
"Even when it was 3-1, I still thought we had a chance," Shyiak said. "I think we went on the power play and the power play was not sharp and they came back and scored that fourth goal. It was game over after that.
I think the guys were just mentally frustrated and went through it "
That fourth Minnesota goal came from Rau in the final minute of the second period and turned the game into a blowout. There's a difference between going into the third period up 3-1 and 4-1 and it showed in Alaska-Anchorage's play during the third period. Gunderson, who made 24 saves Saturday, was once again peppered in the third period as Minnesota was able to move the puck from one end of the rink to the other.
"Everyone was just good moving side-to-side and so the five hole opens up when that happens," said Rau, who scored two of his goals that way. The sophomore, who said after the game that he had not scored three goals in a game since his senior year in high school, notched the first Minnesota hat trick since Nick Bjugstad (Panthers) did against St. Cloud State on November 19, 2011.
Nate Condon (Colorado Avalanche) and A.J. Michaelson added late goals for the Gophers, who are now fourth in the PairWise rankings. The game ended with physical play by both sides - Seawolves forward Chris Crowell and Minnesota's Seth Helgeson (New Jersey Devils) received 10 minute misconducts while Bailey was given a 5 minute boarding and game misconduct - much to the ire of Shyiak for the second straight night.
"A lot of people don't like it. If they're going to take hitting out of the game, then take hitting out of the game," the Alaska-Anchorage said.
In the end for Minnesota, meanwhile, it was a much better performance - both individual and as a team - than the game-stealing win on Friday.
Minnesota next hosts North Dakota Friday and Saturday. Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North with Friday's game starting at 7 p.m. CT and Saturday's beginning at 5 p.m. as part of Hockey Day Minnesota.
Alaska-Anchorage hosts Minnesota State for a two-game series Friday and Saturday. Both games start at 7:05 p.m. Alaskan Time (10:05 p.m. CT)
Follow Nate Wells on Twitter @gopherstate.