MINNEAPOLIS- The Gophers did not need a comeback against Ohio State Friday to keep its Big Ten title hopes alive.
Sitting in fourth place entering the weekend, Minnesota returned to Mariucci Arena with one of its best performances in the last six weeks, defeating the Buckeyes 4-2. Sophomore Justin Kloos had a goal - only his third since November 8th - and an assist as did Vinni Lettieri in a game their team never trailed.
"The most frustrating part is a lot of those games I missed gimmes and our team ended up losing by one or tied. That was the most frustrating part. It was good to help the team win and get a big Friday win," said Kloos, whose team outshot OSU 42-23, about being snakebit the past two months. "We'll have a chance for a sweep tomorrow."
Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox made 21 saves.
The Gophers were able to play a complete effort without leading goal scorer Connor Reilly, who is out indefinitely with a lower body injury. The team did so coming off a weekend against Wisconsin where it fell behind 3-1 and gave up 3 one-goal leads in the third period to a 2 win Wisconsin team.
Maintaining a lead has admittedly been in the back of Minnesota players' minds during the team's recent struggles. It has not out of the ordinary since January for them to talk about not having confidence . Since the beginning of 2015 the Gophers have been 3-5-2, falling out of position for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Five times Minnesota had scored the first goal this season and ended up losing. In several more games an opponent turned one or two-goal lead in the third period into a tie game. As senior forward Travis Boyd put it mid-week, "it's not good having a problem where you can't hold onto a lead."
So when Ohio State's Anthony Greco scored his 13th goal of the season to make it a 2-1 game 5:09 into the second, there was a familiar feeling of seeing hard work in the first period going by the wayside. The Buckeyes, missing several players due to injury, sickness and suspensions, spent much of the second period picking up the pace and slowing down the home team physically. Already with a highlight-reel save on Greco in the first period, Wilcox, was being tested.
First period goals by Leon Bristedt and Kloos, whose 9th goal of the season came off a rebound and move that left Ohio State goaltender Christian Frey unable to do anything, had Minnesota up by just one despite a 22-10 shot advantage.
Instead, the Gophers were able to do something which has been missing. Head coach Don Lucia's team found comfort. The team went on to block 13 shots and not give OSU a chance in front of the net.
More importantly, Boyd and Lettieri scored less than three minutes apart in the second to make it a 4-1 Minnesota lead.
"You need some separation goals. The third goal is that separation goal," said Lucia.
Boyd, the player who spoke about needing to block shots and holding leads, got that separation goal past Frey, who made 38 saves in a performance his head coach said gave his team a chance. He needed all of ten seconds on the power play to snipe a shot top shelf for the team's third of the night 8:19 into the second period.
Lettieri, meanwhile, tipped a Christian Isackson shot into the net as time expired on Nick Schilkey's penalty.
The Gophers went 2 for 4 with the man advantage Friday.
"You get one and you're right there," said Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik, whose team lost for the 5th straight game. "Obviously can't put this team on the power play. They're number one in the Big Ten for a reason."
Nick Oddo added a goal with 1:50 remaining in the game to get Ohio State within two, but the Buckeyes, pulling Frey and playing until the end, were not able to get anything else against Minnesota's best effort in 2015.
"It's important. Now we have to build on this and see it on a nightly basis," said Lucia about his team's effort before cautioning that it is only one game.
"They'll get another guy (Matthew Weis) who had to sit out and I think you'll see (Ohio State) really take a step as a team now that they'll get their healthy guys back."
With the win, the Gophers are 1 point behind Michigan State for third place in the Big Ten. First-place Michigan has a 6 point lead (games are worth 3 points) with 11 conference games left on the schedule.
Minnesota and Ohio State play again tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. CT at Mariucci Arena. FSN+ and STO will broadcast the game.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate