Minnesota Gopher hockey played well enough to win last night, but St Cloud State deserved to win as the Huskies hung on 4-3 to stay atop the WCHA. Minnesota dominated the shot sheet, almost doubling the shot totals of SCSU 39-21, outshooting them by period 12-7, 15-8, and 12-6 in the final stanza. The problem was that St Cloud capitalized on their few opportunities while Minnesota couldn't muster any offense until it was too late. Husky goalie Ryan Faragher outplayed The U's Adam Wilcox, and despite the Gophs' two power play goals in four chances and zero goals allowed with the man advantage, Minnesota faces an uphill climb to defend the MacNaughton Cup.
After the 4-2 Gopher win Friday night, you wondered how SCSU would respond- despair or desperation? They definitely gave the latter, getting the game's first goal barely two minutes into the second period as Joey Holka caught Garret Milan's tipped shot in front of the net, dropped it to the ice, and knuckled a shot past Wilcox. That was about how it went for Wilcox, as the four goals he let in weren't bad goals yet he still allowed an uncharacteristic four on just 21 shots. He needs to be better, but his defense needs to not leave him hung out to dry either as they too often did, as the final three Husky goals all came on odd-man rushes. Nic Dowd and his stupid hair made it 2-0 SCSU with just under three to go in the period off a 2-on-1, as Wilcox almost made an incredible save. He slid over across the crease and got a piece of Dowd's one-timer, but the puck trickled through him and into the net. The Gophers finally got on the board thanks to a 5-on-3 with about 2 minutes left in the second. Minnesota sent a barrage of shots at Faragher, and it was starting to feel like the puck just wasn't going in before Nate Schmidt let loose a howitzer from the right circle that finally put Minnesota on the board. The St Cloud native Schmidt, by the way, was his usual incredible self in the series with goals both nights. It's crazy that of all the Gopher players who were drafted he's not one of them, but it might actually work out better for him as free agent as he'll get to choose his situation on where to start his pro career. I hope he puts that decision off til he graduates in 2014 but with the way he's played...ok a worry for another day.
Just as it seemed Minnesota had taken some momentum back to early in the third their transition defense let them down allowing an odd-man rush on an incredible cross-ice outlet pass from the other SCSU player with stupid hair, defenseman Nick Jensen. His pass landed right on the tape of Gopher killer Johnny Brodzinski, who capitalized with his 14th of the season on a slapper from just inside the blue line. Wilcox normally wouldn't allow a goal from that far out unless it was tipped, and because the National Hockey Center apparently doesn't allow for more than two cameras in the whole f'ing building- and none behind the net which, you know, is occasionally an angle we'd maybe like to see on replays- we'll just have to assume it was. Wilcox's reaction to the puck beating him glove high was to look at his defenseman with his catching glove raised up as if to say "what the f***, dude?". It wasn't done on purpose, but the guess is the shot changed direction off the Gopher d-man's stick and considering the stink Brodzinski had on that shot it didn't give Wilcox a chance to react.
Three minutes later Husky captain Drew LeBlanc put the dagger in with- wait for it- yet another odd-man rush. I know right? Can't remember if the outlet pass was also Stupid Hair Jensen's devilish work, but the pass was a beauty, sent airborne like a chip shot from the rough from the right wall, all the way to center ice where a streaking LeBlanc caught it, dropped it, and skated in on the left on a partial breakaway. The Gopher D were caught on a change, and they couldn't get to LeBlanc before he fired off a John Buccigross-esque "twisted wrister" that beat Wilcox short-side from just above the face off dot. Now up 4-1 with 13 minutes to play, it seemed over, and the Husky crowd certainly believed so. Yet credit the Gophers for not packing it in, and gave themselves a chance thanks to a Nick Bjugstad power play goal with about 10 to go. Bjugstad ended up with the puck "in his office" by the left face off dot, giving the big righty time to fake a slapper once, twice, then teed it up off the inside of the post on a shot Faragher heard more than he saw. Nate Condon banged in a rebound from the doorstep off the right post a few minutes later to cut the deficit to just one goal, but despite a flurry of shots and opportunities they weren't able to solve Faragher again, and a late Zach Budish penalty (who was snake-bitten all weekend) ended any hope.
The loss was a tough one and it was the kind of close, hard-fought game you'd expect between two bitter rivals having good seasons, and keeps the Gophers in 3rd place, still 5 points behind SCSU with two games in hand. If Minnesota can sweep those two games, something they've done just once in conference play all season, they'd be just a point back of St Cloud, but with Wisconsin, Duluth, Denver and Bemidji remaining, that sweep isn't going to be easy to come by. Still, if the Gophers have any hope now of catching the Huskies they almost have to sweep either a struggling Duluth squad in two weeks at home and/or Bemidji on the road to end the regular season. The Wisconsin weekend coming up is a strange one playing at the Kohl Center Friday night and outdoors at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon, and Denver anywhere, even at home, will be a battle. UND got one of those sweep things (hang on- is that even possible?) on the road against a GOOD opponent (you can really do that? That's allowed?) picking up four points against UNO and moving into sole possession of 2nd place with 28 points. The two losses drops UNO to third with 26 with Minnesota, while Denver, Minnesota State and the Drunken Sconnies are just a point back in fifth with 25 points each.
It's certainly not an easy remaining road for Minnesota, but tied for third with four series remaining, they've kept themselves in contention for the conference title and a top 3 seed in the WCHA playoffs. They played well at times this weekend yet the defensive breakdowns ended up killing them Saturday night , and they'll need to get ready for yet another emotional weekend against the Badgers.