MINNEAPOLIS – So far, it looks like a smoother road for the Minnesota Golden Gophers compared to last year when inconsistent play kept them out of the NCAA Tournament.
Some tough non-conference losses were a big part of that, but after beating the Niagara Purple Eagles 4-2 on Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci, the Gophers are off to a 3-1 start with all four games outside of Big Ten play.
Minnesota had just three sweeps last season, and they didn’t have one at home until the final regular season series when they did it against Arizona State. They have their first home sweep this season after just one series, so that’s another building block in head coach Bob Motzko’s second year on the job.
Overall, it was a solid performance for the Gophers after looking sloppy at times on Friday. They cut down on the turnovers, had some nice looks in the offensive zone and played a relatively clean game.
“That was an excellent team effort tonight. I liked us from start to finish,” Motzko said. “[Niagara’s] a good hockey team. They’re gonna finish very, very high in their conference. They’re gonna knock a lot of people off. This was a good win for us.”
Even though the Gophers gave up the game’s first goal for the third time in four games (they’re 3-0 in those instances), they never wavered. Motzko liked how his team responded. How did they do it? By having a short memory.
“[They just] let it go,” he said. “It happens. There’s nothing you can do. It took us two more shifts after the goal, then we got going.”
Niagara came out getting the quick start they needed as Dylan Mills scored from the slot 35 seconds into the game, beating Minnesota goaltender Jared Moe glove-side. The Gophers had early turnovers stopping them from forechecking in the Niagara zone, but played solid over the last ten minutes over the period.
Much like Friday night, Minnesota came to life with a pair of goals in quick succession. First, Sammy Walker tied the game after one-timing a beautiful feed from Blake McLaughlin on the doorstep, then Brannon McManus followed his own rebound of a shot from the left circle to give the Gophers a 2-1 second-period lead. Good forechecking was the key on both goals.
“We’re good down low. That’s our game right now,” McManus said. “We gotta stick to it.”
The Purple Eagles tied the game again early in the third. A Minnesota turnover behind their net was picked up by Cam Cook, and he found Reed Robinson alone in front for a top-shelf goal.
Minnesota snatched the lead back for good just four minutes later. Niagara’s Ryan Cook checked McManus from behind along the left wing wall in the Minnesota end, and he was given a major and game misconduct after about a three-minute review. 27 seconds later, Burke scored from the slot, giving the Gophers their second power-play goal of the game at a crucial time.
“If you’re gonna win, your power play has to come through at big-time moments,” Motzko said.
Scott Reedy put the game away with a late empty-net goal.
The nonconference portion of Minnesota’s schedule certainly doesn’t get any easier next week when they face two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth in a home-and-home series. The Bulldogs are off to a 1-3 start after getting swept at Wisconsin, and Motzko is expecting a tough series from a physical team. Still, the Gophers broke a lengthy losing streak to their in-state rivals at the beginning of last season.
“We’re gonna have a very ornery team coming in here next week,” Motzko said. “The speed limit is gonna go up.”
NU goal at :35: Dylan Mills (1). Assisted by Kris Spriggs (1) and Scott Persson (1st collegiate point).
MINN power-play goal at 10:20: Sammy Walker (3). Assisted by Blake McLaughlin (2) and Ryan Johnson (2).
MINN goal at 11:29: Brannon McManus (1). Assisted by Garrett Wait (3) and Ryan Zuhlsdorf (1).
NU goal at 1:04: Reed Robinson (1). Assisted by Cam Cook (1st collegiate assist) and Scott Persson (1st collegiate assist).
MINN power-play goal at 5:09: Nathan Burke (1). Assisted by McManus (3) and Walker (2).
MINN empty-net goal at 19:36: Scott Reedy (2). Unassisted.
Power plays: NU 0-3, MINN 2-4.
Shots on goal: NU 22, MINN 30.