Saturday night's Mariucci Classic consolation game between top-ranked Minnesota and RPI hinged on three plays. Unfortunately for the Engineers, two of the three swings of momentum went the way of the home team and turned an entertaining game into a blowout.
Gophers co-captain Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers draft pick) scored two goals, a night after notching his 100th college point, and Minnesota (13-2-3, 3-0-1-0 Big Ten) scored six goals in a 6-2 win.
"I thought Minnesota was real committed to playing an honest game tonight," RPI (8-8-4, 3-3-3 ECAC) head coach Seth Appert said Saturday. "They finished checks, they were strong, they had good gaps, and that's part of it. I thought their whole team was like that."
The Gophers were tasked with stopping the nation's leading goal scorer Ryan Haggerty while changing its own lines to jumpstart offense.
Only the reunited third line of Travis Boyd, Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Tom Serratore remained the same. Taylor Cammarata (New York Islanders) was split from Justin Kloos and played on the first line, Sam Warning went from the first line to the second, and Nate Condon (Colorado Avalanche) centered him.
Getting back Brady Skjei (New York Rangers), which allowed the team to have six defensemen, also helped immensely. The sophomore defenseman spent the World Juniors playing in a shutdown role and looked to bring it back to Dinkytown.
"I think it was just that we were in sync," Minnesota defenseman Ben Marshall (Detroit Red Wings), who had two assists, said. "We got our shifts, we paced ourselves a bit better tonight than last night. We got a lot of rest so that was good for the D core."
The Engineers, however, scored first. Brock Higgs was credited with his 13th goal of the season 15:57 into the first period when his pass went off a Gopher defenseman's skate and into the net. It was the second shorthanded goal in as many games and fourth of the season for RPI.
Such goals have been downfalls for Minnesota teams in the past and it looked for a moment that, despite out-shooting the opposition 15-6, the Gophers would trail after 20 minutes. Instead, Connor Reilly sat in front of Engineers goaltender Scott Diebold and tipped a Justin Holl (Chicago Blackhawks) shot past him with 43 seconds left in the period.
It was a play that was missing from Minnesota's arsenal last night. Puck luck aside, the tying goal was huge
"We had a good, strong first period. We had a lot of good looks, but that was obviously an important goal because I think it set the tone for the start of the second period," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, who was not expected this weekend yet got to the rink at 8:30 this morning following Team USA's WJC elimination overseas in Sweden. "We came out and scored some goals to give us some breathing room tonight."
The Gophers kept the momentum coming out of the first intermission, scoring twice in the opening 1:19 of the second period to take a 3-1 lead. After Boyd (Washington Capitals) scored his second goal in as many nights, Rau was left alone in front of the RPI goaltender and batted a second chance past him.
Justin Kloos added a goal 5:30 later to make it 4-1.
Diebold, who made 38 saves, played better than in Friday's 6-2 loss to #2 Ferris State. Still, a lack of physical play by the Engineers gave Minnesota opportunity after opportunity. The Gophers out-shot RPI 44-20.
"We weren't physical enough in the first two periods," Appert added. "I think you saw in the third when we really started banging bodies more, and our fourth line was doing it throughout the game."
RPI made it 4-2 when Matt Neal beat Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) and nearly had a third. Haggerty beat Wilcox, who made 18 saves, off the face-off with 9:10 remaining in regulation to break a 3 game drought. However, the referees waved it off for interference and sent Jimmy De Vito to the box (after initially sending the potential goal scorer).
Rau scored on the ensuing power play 28 seconds later and Minnesota kept its momentum.
"It was a bad call, but that's not why we lost. It was a big moment, obviously, it would have been 4-3 with 8 minutes left to go," said Appert when asked about the call. "It was a big moment, but that's not why we lost.
"We came out uncertain of ourselves and not 100% committed to the way we need to play to beat a team of their caliber."
Minnesota instead heads back into Big Ten conference action on a winning note after tying Colgate and losing to the Raiders in a shootout. The Gophers face Penn State in State College next Sunday and Monday.
"Take 27 days off and you're not going to be great coming out the first game," Boyd said. "We weren't happy about it, but at the same time we knew we were going to play better tonight and I think we did that.
"We're definitely more confident moving forward and getting back into Big Ten play."
-Ambroz added an empty net goal. He leads the team with 9 goals this season.
-Boyd and Marshall were named to the all-Mariucci Classic team, along with forwards Matt Robertson (Ferris State) and Darcy Murphy (Colgate), defenseman Spiro Goulakas (Colgate) and goalie Charlie Finn (Colgate). Finn was also named Tournament MVP.
-Attendance was announced at 9,632
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate