MINNEAPOLIS – It’s been a brilliant second half of the season for Minnesota, but it was nearly all for naught after a horrendous effort in Game 1 of their Big Ten quarterfinal series.
Facing elimination, Minnesota started fast and finished strong on Saturday night to put it behind them and guarantee one last game on home ice for their seniors.
An early goal by Ryan Zuhlsdorf gave the 19th-ranked Golden Gophers a jump they desperately needed, and they went on to hold off the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2-1 at 3M Arena at Mariucci to keep their season alive.
Cullen Munson’s backhand goal early in the third period turned out to be the game-winner as the 4th-seeded Gophers, who were dominated in every phase of the game by the 5th-seeded Irish on Friday, forced a decisive Game 3 with a much better effort on Saturday.
“True to form, we battled back,” Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko said after the game. “We did respond tonight.”
Cam Morrison had a big third-period goal for the Irish, but it was all they could muster despite multiple shots off the post, a good forecheck most of the night and another solid performance by goaltender Cale Morris and the defense in front of him.
“We had chances to score; we hit the post at least three or four times. Move those two inches and maybe it’s a different result,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson. “Minnesota played with more urgency I thought tonight. It showed up in the way they played the game, so we just have to come back at it tomorrow.”
With their season on the line, Minnesota scored on their first shot of the night as Zuhlsdorf picked a good time to score his first goal of the season, beating Morris with a wrist shot from the slot.
“It’s certainly a good feeling, getting the first one of the year,” Zuhlsdorf said.
The Gophers were very fortunate to escape the first period with the lead; they managed only two more shots while the Irish spent most of the last 15 minutes in the offensive zone with good puck movement and keeping Jack LaFontaine busy with 13 shots on goal.
Joey Marooney forced a turnover at the blue line, Jonny Sorenson picked up the puck and passed to Munson, who finished it on the doorstep to give Minnesota a crucial two-goal lead. It was made even bigger later after Matt Staudacher went off for boarding and Morrison scored on the ensuing power play halfway through the third period to cut it back to one.
“Our special teams kept us in the game,” Jackson said. “Penalty kill did a good job; power play score a big goal. Just have to find a way to get that second goal.”
Motzko wasn’t pleased with how that sequence of events went down at a critical time.
“Really did not like our penalty that we took at the end,” Motzko said. “2-0, we had the game in check.”
LaFontaine, who earned his 8th win of the season, made 30 saves and stood strong over the final 1:30 with the extra attacker on for the Irish.
“He’s been the backbone for us this second half,” Zuhlsdorf said. “All the guys are behind him, and he’s doing everything for us.”
Morris made 18 saves for Notre Dame one night after a 12-save shutout performance.
So what was it that upped Minnesota’s performance? Was it the return of the gold ‘Wooger’ jerseys?
“It’s playoffs. We gotta do something,” Motzko laughed. “We’re wearing them again tomorrow.
“They’ve been working. The first thing I asked last night, ‘Do we still have them? Did we auction them off?’ And they haven’t sent them out yet. All those people that gave us their money – they gotta hold on.”
With Michigan and Ohio State sweeping their respective series to advance and face each other in a winner-take-all semifinal, the Notre Dame-Minnesota winner on Sunday will earn a trip to regular-season champion Penn State in the other semifinal. The loser will see their season end.
Puck drop will be at 6:00 CT.
MINN goal at 1:24: Ryan Zuhlsdorf (1). Assisted by Sammy Walker (18) and Blake McLaughlin (15).
MINN goal at 3:27: Cullen Munson (2). Assisted by Jonny Sorenson (5) and Joey Marooney (4).
ND power-play goal at 10:14: Cam Morrison (12). Assisted by Michael Graham (16) and Alex Steeves (16).
Power plays: ND 1-2, MINN 0-3.
Shots on goal: ND 31, MINN 20.