MINNEAPOLIS – It’s no secret the Minnesota Golden Gophers have a different identity to their team this year.
On Friday night, they put 15 underclassmen in their starting lineup, and the inexperience showed at times. But the talent is still there, and thanks to the heroics of one of those underclassmen, Minnesota was able to dodge a huge upset.
After surviving a late charge in regulation, sophomore forward Sammy Walker picked up a turnover in the defensive zone, skated in on a 2-on-1 break with Nathan Burke and scored a brilliant goal to help the Gophers edge the Niagara Purple Eagles 3-2 in overtime at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
It certainly wasn’t a pretty win, as Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko was quick to acknowledge during the postgame interview.
“We dodged a bullet,” Motzko said. “There’s the good news.”
With good news, though, there’s often bad news.
“We’re a little frustrated how we played,” Motzko said. “That’s gonna be part of our growth. The turnovers, lack of getting pucks deep; they played a very conservative, very intelligent hockey game. They weren’t gonna beat themselves. We have to get in to try to beat them. We won the game; that’s the positive.”
The Gophers (2-1) had a good first 20 minutes, controlling the puck well and generating pressure in the Niagara zone. But goaltender Brian Wilson was up to the challenge early, keeping Minnesota off the board with some spectacular saves. He had 12 in the first period alone to keep the game scoreless.
“Big six-foot-four guy; you could tell he was older, he was calm,” Motzko said. “We shot a lot of pucks up into his belly. I’d like to see more down at his feet at times.”
Ryan Naumovski appeared to give the Purple Eagles (0-1) the game’s first lead late in the first period after a rising wrist shot appeared to beat Gophers goaltender Jack Lafontaine high and off the crossbar. However, the play was reviewed and quickly overturned after the puck clearly deflected off the crossbar without crossing the red line.
The Gophers were downright sloppy in the second period with turnovers, missed passes and lack of forechecking. Niagara, which outshot Minnesota 10-3 in the second, got on the scoreboard first with 22.9 seconds remaining in the period as Brandon Stanley threaded a beautiful goal-mouth pass to Jack Billings, who deposited the puck into a gaping net on the doorstep to light the lamp for the first time in his career.
“We had to come out in the third and be ready to win a hockey game,” Walker said.
Minnesota finally showed some life in the third period, and after drawing a pair of early power plays, the Gophers converted on the latter one to tie the game as a Robbie Stucker shot from the high slot deflected in off Sampo Ranta. Jonny Sorenson gave Minnesota the lead just 1:05 later as the St. Louis Park native got his first collegiate goal in his first home game by burying a big rebound of a Ben Meyers shot.
The lead would be shortlived, however. Cam Cooks became the third skater of the night to score his first collegiate goal as a weak shot from the top of the right circle squirted in under the pad of Lafontaine. Motzko thought that was the only bad moment the junior transfer from Michigan had all game.
“As much as I don’t like the second goal they tied it with, I thought like right off the bat he made [big saves],” he said. “[Niagara] had the best chances to score tonight. Lafontaine gave us a chance.”
Lafontaine was outstanding for the rest of the game, and it was largely thanks to him Minnesota was able to get the game into overtime after the Purple Eagles peppered him with a flurry of shots over the final few minutes.
“He was great for us,” Ranta said. “He’s a goalie we can trust.”
Enter Walker, whose beautiful puck handling and skating skills came through yet again to help the Gophers avoid a big early-season upset.
“The de taking away the pass, so I shot it,” Walker said.
Motzko knew Walker would take it himself from the moment he picked up that turnover inside the Niagara zone.
“We all knew it. [Walker] was gone,” he said.
The two teams conclude their nonconference series at 7:00 CT on Saturday night.
NU goal at 19:37: Jack Billings (1st collegiate goal). Assisted by Brandon Stanley (1st career point).
MINN power-play goal at 5:53: Sampo Ranta (2). Assisted by Robbie Stucker (1) and Jackson Lacombe (1st collegiate point).
MINN goal at 6:58: Jonny Sorenson (1st collegiate goal). Assisted by Ben Meyers (2) and Ryan Johnson (1st collegiate point).
NU goal at 8:05: Cam Cook (1st collegiate goal). Assisted by Chris Harpur (1) and Noah Delmas (1).
MINN goal at :46: Sammy Walker (2). Assisted by Blake McLaughlin (1) and Lacombe (2).
Power plays: NU 0-1, MINN 1-3.
Shots on goal: NU 27, MINN 28.