As Minnesota (3-4-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) continues to try and grow together as a team, last weekend's split held some positive steps in that direction. Playing Notre Dame, the Gophers were able to come back from a two goal deficit in the third period Friday before eventually losing. The next night Minnesota took it one step further by putting away the Fighting Irish with a three-goal third period to break open a 1-1 game.
"I think we proved to ourselves that we can win against good teams," said Big Ten third star of the week Leon Bristedt, who had three goals in two games.
Entering this weekend's non-conference series against Minnesota State (5-5-0, 5-1-0 WCHA) - Friday's game is in Mankato with the action Saturday shifting up US 169 to Minneapolis - the Gophers got some much-needed help from upperclassmen. All three goals in Saturday's third period were by juniors. Two of them came from players counted on to score, but had not lit the lamp.
Following defenseman Michael Brodzinski's go-ahead goal, Justin Kloos gave Minnesota a 3-1 on a wraparound for his first of the year. Connor Reilly, who had yet to score since his return from injury, added a buzzer beater empty netter.
"We need that. We need some balanced scoring as much as we can this year. It has to be different guys," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "Brodzinski, it was a nice shot by him, Kloos scored and even Connor getting the empty net. Hopefully that'll get him going again because as we talked about, in January when (he got hurt) he was our leading goal scorer."
"I thought Taylor made a great play, hitting (Michael) Brodzinski for the game winner. Just an example of - I mean he's not the biggest guy - he stripped the puck from the defenseman. It wasn't because of physicality," he said. "He just was winning a stick battle and making a good heads up play."
Preparing for Minnesota State
Plenty has changed since the Gophers last visited Mankato in January 2013, namely the ice sheet.
Verizon Wireless Center underwent a renovation to change the ice size from Olympic sized (100 feet wide) down to NHL sized (85 feet wide). Minnesota spent Monday and Tuesday practicing on the big sheet at Mariucci before shifting Wednesday and Thursday to Ridder Arena.
Minnesota is planning on busing down to Mankato Thursday to spend the night there. That will allow the Gophers a chance to get used to the ice with a morning skate Friday, according to Lucia.
It's a different decision than Minnesota's last home-and-home series when the team bused up to Duluth the morning of the second game rather than following the previous night's game.
Bristedt said the Gophers aren't taking the Mavericks, who as the #1 team in the nation beat Minnesota last season 2-1 in the North Star College Cup, lightly.
"We are the Gophers and everyone tries to beat us. That's how it is. That's the good part about being a Gopher, you're playing for a good school, a school with tradition and it's going to keep bringing tradition," he said. "It's a rivalry and we're really pumped for it. We lost last year and we're going to go down there and try to win."
To be successful, Minnesota will have shut down another balanced team. Minnesota State has 7 players with multiple goals. None have more than three. The Mavericks have mirrored its in-state neighbor with a poor start (0-4) and turnaround (5-1 over the last six games), however, where the Gophers have been out-shot, Minnesota State has done the opposite.
Consistency is the next challenge.
"We don't have a large margin for error with this group. We have to play that way (against Notre Dame last weekend) night in and night out. to give ourselves a chance. It doesn't mean that you're going to win when you play that way, but you have to give yourself that chance," Lucia said.
Johnson expected back
Sophomore defenseman Steve Johnson has continued to practice as he returns from a left lower body injury suffered three weeks ago. Last week Lucia was hopeful that Johnson would be ready to return this weekend against the Mavericks. That option will still be there, Lucia said.
"We just have to make a decision whether he'll play or not," he said. "He's had some good reps and been able to come back from that lower body injury. He's fine."
Johnson, who played in 11 games as a freshman has missed the past four games. Freshman Jack Sadek has played in his place.
Norman's first game
Ryan Norman earned his first collegiate appearance Saturday as a reward for working on his conditioning and losing weight.
The 5'10" 204 lbs freshman from Maplewood, MN comes to Minnesota after playing high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's. He spent the game playing on the fourth line along with fellow freshmen Darian Romanko and Jack Ramsey.
2018 Vegas UND game "not finalized" but heading in that direction
Lucia has never been to Las Vegas, but he might be changing that in three years time.
Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reported Sunday that North Dakota is finalizing the 2018 United States Hall of Fame Game against Minnesota to be held at 7K seat Orleans Arena on October 27, 2018. Other outlets have picked up the news (even in Las Vegas itself).
While the game's location has not been finalized, UND did approach the Gophers to be the opponent.
"For me it's the bonus game, it's the rivalry," Lucia said. "I don't know if it is even going to be there. I know they inquired about it and that it leaked out, but the only thing I know is that we said 'yeah, we'll play in the Hall of Fame Game.' Whether it's in Vegas or finalized, I don't know those details."
Having an exempt bonus game or two above the normal 34 game schedule is important to Lucia. It used to easy to achieve in the WCHA era because a conference trip to Alaska meant the Gophers could schedule two extra games thanks to NCAA rules. The past three seasons have seen Minnesota play in the exempt season-opening Ice Breaker tournament in 2013 and 2014 (the Gophers will return in 2017) and host this year's United States Hall of Fame Game against Vermont.
The home-and-home nature of this series means that both teams get control of one game. Friday's game, as with all Minnesota State home games in Mankato will be with Maverick announcers on Comcast 999 in the Twin Cities. (Charter 191 & 826 has it in Mankato.) Friday's radio broadcast will also be on My Talk 107.1 rather than the normal 1500 ESPN.
Saturday's game in Minneapolis will be on Fox Sports North Plus with 1500 broadcasting the radio.
Both games are 7:00 starts.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate