Minnesota may have been idle last week but they did not show any rust against the Huskies.
The top-ranked Gophers came out strong early on the road Friday night against St. Cloud State (17-11-1, 14-6-1 WCHA) at the National Hockey Center as Minnesota (19-4-4, 11-4-4 WCHA) won 4-2. Two 3rd period goals by Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild), who had two Friday night, and Nate Schmidt 58 seconds apart proved to be the difference in the first of a two-game series between the in-state rivals.
Ryan Faragher made 38 saves while Joey Benik and Drew LeBlanc scored for the WCHA-leading Huskies, who lost for the fifth time in six games against the Gophers.
Following a waved off goal by Zach Budish (Nashville Predators), junior Nick Bjugstad got the maroon and gold team on the board 8:45 into the game. Bjugstad parked himself in front of St. Cloud State goaltender Ryan Faragher and put a Kyle Rau (Panthers) rebound past him for a 1-0 lead.
With the goal, Bjugstad now has 6 goals in 6 games against the Huskies.
Minnesota thought they were up 2-0 less than 3 minutes later, but yet another potential goal by Budish - this time on the power play - was overturned. St. Cloud State, who entered Friday's game with a 9 game conference unbeaten streak, responded well following the waved-off goal. Benik stepped up with 5:12 remaining in the first to score his first collegiate goal and took the 1-1 tie into the locker room.
Erik Haula put the Gophers back on top when he scored the lone goal of the second period. The junior forward, who leads the team with 33 points, sniped a shot off the post and past Faragher. However, St. Cloud State's Drew LeBlanc matched him shot-for-shot as the fifth-year senior scored on the power play 3:59 into the 3rd period to tie the game at two.
The Huskies had momentum following the goal by LeBlanc, who is second in the nation in scoring with 39 points, but could not find a way past Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning). The Gopher goalie made 22 saves, including a late breakaway on Jimmy Murray. That paid off during a stretch of 4-on-4 play when Minnesota took advantage of their speed and the Olympic-sized ice to bend SCSU's will with two goals.
First, Nate Schmidt found a streaking Haula and the Pori, Finland native scored his 13th goal of the season with 10:28 remaining. 58 seconds later Schmidt went from the assist maker to the goal scorer when Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) found him open across the ice.
The junior defenseman has 27 points (7G-20A) to lead all college hockey defensemen.
With the win, Minnesota is in a three-way tie for second with North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha; three points behind St. Cloud State. The Gophers, however, have two games in hand.
Minnesota and St. Cloud State play again tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus and FCS Atlantic.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.